In years past, I’ve asked students to write page 82 of their autobiography. At a loss for something to write today, I decided to take up the assignment myself…
easy to call that time comfortable, but I’m sure I don’t remember accurately. I don’t recall much doubt, at least not the kind that accompanies my actions now. If someone asked me to draw a figure for a pep-rally poster or sing a solo at a choir concert or write something for the school newspaper, I did it with little apprehension, certain people would praise my courage if not my talent or intelligence. When friends said they were bad writers or bad at math, I said “Me too,” but only in solidarity. I could study enough to ace any test. No subject seemed unattainable. Failure was odd enough to seem unlikely.
You can’t trace a changed perspective to a single moment, but one stands out. As a junior, I’d gone out with the same girl all year—one of the seniors, a cheerleader at our school, a redhead and the twin of another cheerleader. That first year I was the new kid at school, and attracting the attention of such a prominent beauty instantly ratified my social standing. I didn’t think in those terms, though. She was my first love, the first person to hear the deeper speech beneath my idle conversation, to sense the soft tremors of my shifting moods. We didn’t need to speak much, though we spoke all the time, and some part of our communication was sexual, moving toward but never reaching the complete deed. No one touched in my family—I can’t remember embracing my father or mother between ten and twenty-four—so our experimentation seemed electric, more potent than any stimulant.
But she went away to college the next year, leaving me behind in our high school feeling strange again, out of context again. We must have decided what to do with us but I don’t know that. Did I question our continuing as we had? Before she left, we may have looked at calendars marked with when she’d be home from college and when I might visit. Maybe she was sure absence would make us fonder. I remember feeling sure.
In October, I arranged to stay with another friend on campus, but my girlfriend planned to have me visit her dorm room. I didn’t realize her roommate would be gone or that such a consequential moment was in the offing. For all our experimentation, nothing so consequential had happened. I waited for her to tell me at each next step. At least, I think I did. Something else held me back, the gap between thought and feeling I live with every day now.
When I arrived, we kissed as if we’d just seen one another, held hands as we walked to dinner, caught up on news in torrents of conversation. All of it felt a little like a preamble, but I wonder if I knew for what. My clothes sat in a suitcase in my friend’s room, and when we landed back at her dorm, I felt agitated. Because my memory is imperfect I can’t be sure if my affection cooled, if curiosity about a pretty English classmate struck, or if buddies’ skepticism about our long-distance relationship rubbed off. But no impediment or reluctance stands out prior to the moment we’d been approaching for a year.
Nothing happened. We started kissing and playing around as we always had, but when she invited me to continue, I didn’t. Something seemed wrong to me, and what had made us so good—the certainty of our magnetic, nonverbal connection—proved no help. Before then, for us, words amplified emotion, affection. They were no help then. My explanation must have appeared to materialize from a parallel, unvisited universe. I couldn’t, still can’t, say exactly what I thought or why, though I’m sure I tried. No confession to explain my reluctance, no new way to feel about her, no ready rational or emotional justification, I couldn’t come near describing my doubt.
That memory is a well-worn by returning to it. It represents dawn for me, a…