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Memoir

The Priestess squealed with delight when I asked if I could kinda maybe sorta play D&D with them. She hugged me with a strength that lifted my feet off the floor. Then she told me that she’d ask her boyfriend, who acted as the dungeon master for their group.

I haven’t played D&D since this period of my life, so I hope enthusiasts will pardon me if I get the details wrong.

They played the games mostly on the weekend when several people who had gone to our school but who had graduated could drive up to play. That was part of an ongoing campaign and the Dungeon Master didn’t think that it would be possible for me to join in that. However, alongside that they occasionally played much shorter adventures the DM had written that didn’t fit into the ongoing game they played on the weekends. He told me that I could play for the first time with one of those. Those were typically done during the week and, as a matter of practicality, only people who were currently on campus played. I was actually counting on this because it wasn’t the game I was interested in.

They agreed to meet on one of the common rooms in one of the dormitories. I don’t think any of us lived in that dorm, but it was chosen because it was liable to be empty.

The other players all had characters they had played before. I showed up slightly early to create a character. While I rolled the die and wrote the numbers down on a piece of paper, some of the other players came in. With each entrance, I glanced up only to be mildly disappointed. I had an ulterior motive.

Finally, she came in. She didn’t walk so much as swagger. She wore her faded, loose fitting jeans low on her hips, which wasn’t the style for women in the early eighties. They were belted with a heavy black belt. T-shirt. Black leather jacket. Converse high-tops. Her dark hair was cut short in a mannish style by a barber in town. In retrospect, I guess she dressed like a cliché, but I had never known a woman like that before. Perhaps I’d seen someone like that on the street, in Provincetown or Greenwich Village, but never someone my own age who I actually knew. In any case, nothing she wore seemed like a costume or put on. It all looked very natural on her. These days, we’d call her butch, but back then it was a forbidden word.

She told stories about how, when she’d go into town, she might be mistaken for a man. Rather than being offended, she seemed to be delighted by this and the stories usually ended with her bursting into a high pitched giggle. Still, it always seemed odd to me because underneath it all she always seemed female to me. In fact, it was just that odd mix of masculine and feminine that made her so compelling.

Let’s call her Trouble. The girl your mother didn’t think she had to warn you about.

The game got underway and, if my memory serves, it didn’t take very long until someone noticed the lack of snacks. I confess, I was betting on this.

Well, Trouble, as I anticipated, was the only one with a car. She had barely gotten the words, “Who wants to come….” out of her mouth when I eagerly volunteered. The nearest grocery that was still open at that hour was two towns over, about a ten or fifteen minute drive away.

I slid into the passenger side of her old Dodge Dart. It looked like the sort of car one of my father’s friends might drive. Large American cars like that were rapidly disappearing. The front seat was continuous, more like a sofa – much better for what we used to call “making out.”

Trouble and I had been friendly, but not friends. We had friends in common, but had spent little time together that wasn’t in the company of other people. She made some attempts as small-talk.

I slid my hand across the seat and onto her thigh. This was even more awkward than it sounds because the seat was quite wide and reaching her thigh involved more leaning than I anticipated and any hope for grace or subtlety was lost. Still, I think if fell short of clumsy.

“You!” She said with genuine surprise. “My gaydar must be broken. I never suspected.”

By then I had taken my hand away because leaning over like that was getting a bit awkward.

“Come on,” she said. “Slide on over a little bit closer.”

I saw news of Prince’s death today. And it put me in mind of a brief episode that wouldn’t make it into a “memoir” if I was writing it as a book in the normal way rather then recounting episodes as I remember them.

I’ve been putting off writing about anything that happened during the last couple of years of high school because my family moved and that introduces a whole new group of people and a new environment.

My new school was very different from my previous school, which was different from the one before that. The town was bigger. It was also richer. People refer to the town as “diverse,” but in some ways it was the least diverse, unless you’re talking about skin tone, which is of course what most people mean when they say “diverse.” That, however, is a tirade for another day.

There were some distinct advantages to going to a larger school. We had all sorts of enrichment classes available with didn’t exist in my other school. Instead of gym, you could take ballet or modern dance. There was a variety of music classes, as well as drama, set design. There was a larger choice of languages. There wasn’t just “art class,” either. They were more specific, including, believe it or not, a weaving class. It wasn’t really a “basket weaving” class, since we wove other things as well. For some reason, there were no boys in the class and the class was really small. Most of the girls in the class were not in my other classes and none were in my larger social circle, so it had the feeling of being a little respite from the larger track of my life. A couple of days a week, I’d head to the art room which was located at the end of a hall where I had no other classes and never otherwise went. We all sat around a table in the back of the room. It was even physically isolated. With so few students, there was no real need for the teacher to keep order and she allowed us to bring in a boom box and play music. It was just a really nice pleasant environment.

The was one girl I remember quite well. I can still conjure up her face in my memory. She was a petite, pretty girl with dark skin and delicate features. She was soft-spoken and gave the overall impression of being gentle and dainty. Sometimes, there are people about whom, after that part of your life has passed, you think, “I should have reached out more.” I liked her and she was always friendly to me, but we never became friends for the uninteresting reason that our social circles did not overlap. She was not in any other classes with me that year, but the next year she would be in my history class. Otherwise, I rarely saw her.

Like me, she was relatively new to the school, but unlike me she came from much further away. Her father, was an executive with a large international corporation and her family had been living in Kenya. I believe they were all American, but it was so long ago I can’t be certain if I knew that for a fact or it was something I just assumed.

One day, she came in with a bootleg cassette. This wasn’t the usual homemade tape where someone had smuggled a cassette recorder into a live show and you could barely make out the music. I don’t know where she got it and she wasn’t telling, but she was obviously thrilled to have it. They were studio recordings of an unknown artist whose album that was about to be released. “Everybody,” she said as she commandeered the boombox, “listen up. You’ve got to hear this. This guy is going to be the next big thing.”

And that was the first time I heard Prince.

We left the sushi restaurant and headed a few blocks east and south. To my surprise, we stopped in front of a large, old brick building which I couldn’t see well in the dark. It looked like it might be an old school that had been built towards the end of the nineteenth century, yet strange and foreboding. I believed we were going back to Slacker’s apartment. The street was lined with old tenement buildings. Was that what I had been expecting? We went through an old heavy wood door, which to my surprise hadn’t been locked.

The interior was dark, cavernous, with high ceilings. You could see and not see, like in a dimly lit night club. In front of us was a staircase with a trace of a dim yellow from an incandescent bulb illuminating the edges of the steps, but not managing to reach to the bottom. To our right, was more darkness. Was there more building that way? Another room? To our left was an opening. It wasn’t so much a separate room as a separate part of the entry way, itself larger than the space we had first entered. There were folding chairs arranged in rows, about half occupied by people who were staring into the light emanating from a stage. Actors were on the stage. There was a set, but it was sparse. There were costumes though. Rough approximations of medieval clothing. Old language. Shakespeare? We slipped into some seats.

The young man on the stage says he comes from France. Some others enter. Is one a king? Gavestone. Mortimer. Marlowe, perhaps? There is a queen, she is unhappy. This unexpected play. It is like entering a dream. Plots. Murder. All so strange. It feels not quite real. Of course, it is not real, it’s a play. But sitting watching the play is what feels unreal.

We must have arrived shortly after it began because we seem to see the whole thing.

“Are there always plays here?” I asked after it ended.

“No, this is the first,” Slacker responds.

We walk towards the stairs I saw when we first came in. A big, heavy, broad wooden staircase. The rest of the audience files out. We are the only ones going upstairs.

“What is this place?”

“It’s a former convent.”

The hallway is wide and lined with doors. We go inside one. There is a narrow bed and the room isn’t much bigger. The ceiling is high. There might be more volume unused above our heads than used at surface level. I like it here and I don’t. The building is interesting. I wish I could just wander around it. But there seems to be no locks anywhere. It makes me uneasy. I think to myself, I can complain, but if I complain then I should just leave. I resign myself to accepting it and I say nothing.

The next morning, I head down the hallway in search of the toilet. I find it. Like everything else in this place, it feels big, cavernous and empty and as if it was transported from another era. I have that strange feeling of having walked through some sort of portal into parallel universe where everything looks normal, but feels wrong. The bathroom looks like it could be in a dormitory built in the beginning of the century. Along one wall is a trough with some taps over it. Toilet stalls are along the other wall. A young man is washing his hands. He smiles slightly, says hello quietly and returns to washing his hands. I go into one of the stalls. I decide that I won’t shower here. I need a shower, but feel too insecure. Too much empty space. Too few locks. Too many strangers, but too isolated at the same time. I wouldn’t want to stand alone in here with my clothes off.

I return to the nun’s cell Slacker calls home.

There’s a light rap on the door. A young woman pokes her head in. “My boyfriend said you had a female friend visiting. I wanted to come and meet her.”

The boyfriend must have been the young man in the bathroom.

She walked into the room and plopped herself on the bad. She was very pale. There was something noticeably tactile about her flesh. She wore a loose fitting tee shirt. The neck was stretched out and the shirt was several sizes too big. She had a quiet voice, light brown hair and gray eyes and gave the impression of softness. She spoke quietly, but rapidly. She was saying something about Derrida. Derrida. Derrida. Derrida. Her boyfriend tells her about Derrida. Her boyfriend is so smart. Do I like Derrida?

I tell her that I have not read Derrida.

She says I must.

Whenever someone mentioned Derrida, I see her gray eye, her pink flesh.

She jumps up. She must get back to her room, she says. Her boyfriend will return soon and he’ll be so mad if he knows she’s been bothering us. Before she goes, she puts her hands on my shoulder and says that four of us will have to get together soon. I think she’s hinting at a foursome and when the door closes, I ask Slacker if that’s what she means.

“I think so, but don’t want to. It’s not the foursome. It’s not her. It’s her boyfriend. He creeps me out. Did you hear the way she talks about him. It’s like she idolizes him. It’s not healthy.”

He pauses for a moment as if judging how much to say. “She told me that during sex he likes to take a razor blade and cut her because watching her bleed turns him on. She showed me her breasts. They’re covered with small cuts. If it was just kinky sex… well, that’s not my taste anyway. But he dominates her out of bed. She’s sweet, but I think she’s naive. I’m afraid it will go no where good. I worry about her.”

I only saw her briefly one time after that. Soon afterward, something changed regarding the property and all the people who lived there had to leave.

Over the course of a couple of years, a routine had developed. I’d take the subway from Brooklyn to Luscious’ place in Chelsea at least once a week. I’d get there around between eight and nine and bring a six-pack. Luscious would have certainly sneered at today’s commingling of yuppie consumerism with downtown cool, artisanal this, single source that. Some of the artifacts that now make up hipster material culture were only just beginning to appear at that point and Luscious had only disdain for them. “We’re not going to consume our way to a better world,” she once said to me. So, I’d bring a six-pack of decidedly mass market beer. Michelob, strangely, was her preferred brand, but I don’t think it really mattered that much. Food snobbery back then was in its infancy and most Americans ate the same stuff most of the time.

She’d greet me at the door with an enthusiastic greeting, as if my expected arrival and ritual proffering of a six-pack was a pleasant novelty. She’d relieve me of my package and take my coat if it was cold. While she put the beer in the fridge I’d try, yet again, to make friends with her freaky King Charles Spaniel with a hyperactive thyroid.

Her apartment was a studio on the first floor. It was long and narrow. Although a post-war building, the ceiling was high and the light from the lamp next to the brown suede sofa never seemed to penetrate the darkness. If felt oddly cavernous and cramped at the same time.

I’d sit on the sofa, or just pace nearby, and Luscious would emerge from the kitchen with two beers. She would always finish her beer before mine. Holding her bottle up to the light and making a playful frown at its emptiness. She’d grab mine from my hand and look at the quarter or third still remaining. “Little people drink so slowly,” she’d sigh. She’d chug-a-lug the remainder of my bottle. “Don’t worry. I’ll go get us some more.” It was like an ongoing bit in a sitcom. It was also the only way I was able to keep up with her drinking. It was hard to say how many drinks I had had in a night because I almost never finished them.

She was, as I’ve mentioned before, a rock and roll obsessive, and this would be the time when she’d play me something new there was anything interesting. She was my own private pop music reporter and it was principally through her that I kept up on new music. If there was nothing new, she’d put on something old. Sometimes I’d get an impromptu lesson, such as the time she played multiple versions of “Gloria”, which she insisted was the world’s most sexist song for reasons that I never understood. She delighted in Patti Smith’s intro to her version, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” I never really understood that either, but I guess it helps to have been raised as a Christian. Both of Luscious parents had come to the U.S. from Ukraine in the wake of the Second World War. She was born in the East Village, spoke Ukrainian and was raised in the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

As ten o’clock approached, we get ready to leave. In the summer, we might take the subway a couple of stops to Christopher Street and make our way eastward on foot, hitting a series of night spots along the way. In the winter time, we’d walk out in the coldest weather without coats because we were heading to small, hot, sweaty clubs, really bars that had bands, and those places didn’t have coat rooms and some members of the audience had sticky fingers. So, we’d charge east towards Seventh Avenue at top speed and hail a cab as quickly as possible. Luscious, the tall one, would stick out a hand. The cab would pull over and she’d get in first.

One night, she slid across the seat, behind the driver. During the crime wave of the seventies, cabs had started installing plexiglass partitions between the driver and passengers. It was typically on this partition, behind the drivers head, that the taxi license with the name of the driver is displayed.

She looked at the name on license, greeted him in Ukrainian and he replied in kind. After a couple of more exchanges, she said, “My friend doesn’t speak Ukrainian. Can we speak English?”

“Yes, of course.”

Luscious would typically chat with the taxi drivers. It was one of her ways of finding out what was going on the city. Despite Luscious’ radical politics, or perhaps because if it, she usually steered clear of controversial subjects, satisfying herself with being on the receiving end of the conversation. Perhaps it was different this time because the diver was from the same country as her parents. In any case, I no longer recall the conversation that led up to it. I think I was only half listening anyway, but I recall he said that United States was a wonderful country.

Suddenly Luscious was animated. Leaning forward, raising her voice, waving her hands dramatically in the air, “Are you kidding,” she said, “the United States the worst country in the world.”

“Worst country? You must be joking,” he said.

She rattled of a litany of left-leaning complaints from capitalism to Cointelpro.

“You don’t know! I lived in the Soviet Union.”

Luscious expressed a preference for communism over capitalism.

The cab driver was now getting visibly mad. “You don’t know how bad bad can be. You are naive. I know what I’m talking about. You are a foolish girl.”

We were getting near our destination and Luscious flopped back against the seat. We paid our fare in silence.

When the door was shut and the cab was pulling away, she said to me, “He sounds just like my father.”

After dropping my sister off at Bennington College for the summer, my parents now prepared to free themselves of the responsibilities of their younger daughter for a few weeks in the summer. My parents had been unfailingly indulgent throughout my childhood, and now that my sister and I were finally of an age that they could have, once again, time to themselves, they divested themselves of our presence in a comparably indulgent way. I was still a year too young for many of the summer programs run by colleges. I could not have accompanied my sister to Bennington even if I had wanted. However, with one daughter away for the summer it seemed to them to make the most sense to send the other daughter away as well, although it could be argued that I was not nearly old enough or mature enough for that. My sister and I were the sole children in our family and we were only about a year and a half apart, and one grade apart in school. Often, we were treated like twins. We shared many things and what we couldn’t share my mother often bought in pairs, so we were often dressed alike, or nearly alike. I tagged along after my sister, to the park, to dance classes, to horseback riding lessons. Much of my life, I was pushed by circumstances to behave as if I was a year or two older than I was. I was not aware of any pressure. In fact, I enjoyed the inevitable compliments about my maturity. As luck would have it, I just barely qualified for a program at a Well Known Art School only a few miles away in New York City.

New York, New York. I’d grown up in its orbit, reading its newspapers, watching its television stations. As kids, our parents took us into “the city” for its cultural institutions and events, museums, concerts, Broadway plays, dance performances, but it was always in and out, for a day, for an evening. At most we might stay long enough to get a bite to eat. Now I was going to spend an entire summer (well, a month or so) in the city off my parents’ leash.

The dormitory was located on Union Square West on the corner of 15th Street, if my memory serves me correctly. The front of the building fronted the park, where the students were told to never go. For younger people today, the level of danger that existed in large cities at that time is something they really don’t understand since they never experienced it. Teenagers were just as inclined then to ignore adults’ warnings if those warnings seemed exaggerated. Yet we avoided the park. I walked in there exactly one time that summer with a group of several other girls. Back then, it was frequently described as an open air drug mart. From what I saw on my one visit, that was a fairly accurate description. In any case, it was so bleak and unkempt, there was no real reason to go in there anyway.

The dorm rooms were arranged in suites, five or six rooms around a common area with a shared bathroom and a kitchenette. Two of the rooms were single rooms and both housed older students. The other rooms were doubles. It was one of the old, formerly commercial, buildings that ringed the square and the ceilings were high. The beds were bunk beds and high enough to stand underneath. I had nightmares about rolling out almost every night and I felt nervous climbing up and down the ladder to the bed every day and every night, especially down, since I tend to wake up groggy and light-headed and am not myself until I’ve moved around a bit. I don’t think I changed the sheets once while I was there.

The window was huge and the sill was wide. When I arrived, my roommate, a large blond girl, was sitting on the sill. She invited me to join her on the window ledge which was wide enough to seat the two of us. “Look down there,” she said. This was far from the tallest building I’d ever been in, but it was the tallest in which I had spent any length of time. I looked downward at the little cars and dots that were people and had a distinct sense of vertigo. It just felt too easy to fall. I made some excuse and walked away from the window.

I wandered back into the large central room of the suite. There was a young woman with straight black hair which stood on end in an unusual way which looked messy but had to have been intentional. “How old are you?” she asked. “Thirteen,” I replied. “I didn’t think they let people your age into this program,” she said and walked back into her room. She would turn out to be sixteen. As someone who was always the youngest in a group, I was used to the petty bigotry teenagers had about age. I would find that there were few people willing to talk to me. I’m not sure that I’m a loner by nature so much as someone who learned to be a loner.

I would soon learn that they made a really strange design decision with the dormitories. The main door to the suite required a key, but individual room inside had none, nor did the wardrobes have locks. The door to the suite was open. A student staying in another suite poked her head in the room. She was petite and perky with long red hair and would turn out to be one of the youngest students in the program along with me. Furthermore, she was in my class. She had one great advantage I did not possess, she was outgoing, and I happily tagged along after her.

Alice, as I’ll call her, wanted some partners in crime to head on up to the boys’ floor. My roommate declined, as did the girl with the spiky black hair. The dormitories were single sex only by suites and most of those tended to grouped on floors. The result was that while you didn’t share bathrooms and didn’t have to be worried about being caught undressed, there was no real division and boys and girls they were on one another’s floors with regularity.

As a summer program, people of any age had signed up, you just had to be past middle school. Although we all shared the dormitory, it quickly became clear that it was going to sort itself out by age. The self-segregation by age is something that has always seemed odd to me. Still, it is a fact. People do it, and in a situation like this, it became very obvious, college age, younger high school students, older high school students and adults. We all occupied the same space but barely talked to one another.

It didn’t take long to find a suite in which a large number of the high school aged students had gathered. The noise coming from the suite told us which one was it. Introductions mostly involved asking where people were from since we came from around the country. Alice came from far enough away that I would never see her again after the summer. The internet, of course, didn’t exist yet and long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive. It was still, primarily, a face-to-face world. Of course, this meant that I was exposed for the first time to people not from New Jersey.

A young man with an accent that marked him as being from the south declared his eagerness to try one of those bagels he’d heard of.

“I wonder what they look like.”

“They’re round with a hole in them,” I responded.

“Are you sure. I had an idea they were triangular,” he said.

“So, they’re just doughnuts,” someone else said.

“No, not at all like doughnuts,” I answered.

“You seem to know a lot about bagels. Are you from New York?”

“No,” I said. “I’m from New Jersey.”

“Do they have bagels in New Jersey?”

Yes, children, this was the level of ignorance we had back in the pre-internet days. You couldn’t just search on the internet for “bagel” if you wanted to know what one looked like.

“So, you’re from New Jersey,” an older high school boy began. “Do you like Bruce Springsteen?”

Uh oh, I thought. Why did I have to go and attract attention to myself by loudly proclaiming I was from New Jersey. Back home, I’d been suffering from social ostracism. Music was not something to be simply enjoyed, but a means by which teenagers signaled allegiances. This was something I hated and I usually avoided discussion about music to avoid the inevitable social fallout. Worse yet, this was a mixed gender crowd. Boys were usually more aggressive when arguing about musical tastes. Asking me a straightforward, point blank question about music in a group of other high school students I’d only just met and who were all older, including some terrifyingly adorable older boys, and were now staring at me waiting for an answer, I was a heartbeat away from wetting myself.

Worse yet, the question was about Bruce Springsteen. Retrospective histories never convey the actual reception he received as I experienced it at the time. He was, in many ways, an anomaly. A musical genre of one. Sure, there were a small group of other bands who got their start along the Jersey Shore and played along a corridor that ran from New York to Philly, but they were a really small group of people that had little connection to the other musical trends of the time, and no connection whatsoever to larger cultural trends.

I couldn’t figure out what was the socially acceptable response, so I decided I might as well tell the truth. “Yes,” I said.

“Have you ever seen him perform live?”

No, as it happens, I’d see him perform live for the first time later that summer.

“Wait here,” the boy said. “Who’s Bruce Springsteen,” a couple of Southerners whispered while he was gone. Minutes later he returned with a boom box and a pile of cassette tapes. He set it on the table. The cassettes were obviously homemade cassettes, the paper inserts covered in a minuscule scrawl. “Bootlegs,” he said proudly. “My friend recorded this one in Philly a couple of years ago.”

There were some unique characteristics of Bruce fandom at this time. Springsteen became known, not through his studio recordings and radio airplay, but through his live shows. His energy at a show was legendary and they frequently lasted four hours. He once said that he would lose five pounds during a good show. His popularity was intensely regional, centered on Philadelphia, although New York was within its orbit, as was the entire state of New Jersey. His fans were passionate, but there were entire social sectors that more or less just ignored him. He didn’t usually engender hatred in those who were not interested in his music because he was not a pop star in the traditional sense. He seemed to have no connection to other areas of show business. The last thing you would ever think of would be a Bruce Springsteen branded line of cologne – or anything else for that matter, not even a leather jacket. More than anything, however, his fans ignored his studio albums. They traded live bootlegs with a seriousness I’ve never seen in any other group of fans, although Grateful Dead fans might come close. At the time, I suspected he was far more popular than his record sales would indicate. And his popularity spread word of mouth. I knew of him because of my sister. My sister might qualify as Bruce Springsteen’s biggest fan.

It was a strange evening. I hoped it would repeat, but soon the large mass of students would separate into smaller groups. The older students would complain about the noise and there wasn’t another large gathering like that again, at least not that I saw.

Between getting settled and going through the ritual paperwork of registering for classes, it was a short school week. The weekend came and I was eager to get out and see New York City. About half a dozen of us, including Alice and Bruce Springsteen Boy headed to Times Square to take in a movie. We waited online for tickets. When I got up to the box office I took a five dollar bill out of my pocket. As I was bringing it forward towards the semi-circular opening in the ticket booth’s glass window, a man came out of no where, grabbed the bill from my hand and ran away. “He took my money,” I said in stunned disbelief. The woman at the box office just rolled her eyes. “That will be five dollars,” she said impatiently. The people around me grumbled. They all saw what happened. They didn’t care. I was taking too long. I pulled another bill out of my jeans pocket. This time, I kept it balled up in my fist until my fist was right at the box office window and pushed it through so that it was barely exposed until it was slipped into the slot. It was a way of behaving with money that I continue to do until this day. When people describe New York City in the seventies as out of control, it was not only the serious crimes that gave that sensation. A thirteen year old girl could be robbed in a crowd in broad daylight and no one in the crowd would even blink. It was routine. Expected.

It was an overcast day and unseasonably cold for the summer. Still, one of our number was eager to see Central Park. The others concurred and after the movie we headed north. The park was not like the park today. There weren’t nearly as many people in it. It was unkempt and dingy, a sad ghost of its former self. We climbed up on top of one of the many rocks that had been hauled to this place a century ago to make the landscape. The were few people around and no one was interested in a group of high school students sitting on a rock. One of the other students reached into a large satchel she’d been carrying and took a bottle out of her bag. Southern Comfort. I pretended to not be shocked. I’d never had alcohol before, nor had I been around when other students drank it. I was aware of being the youngest of the group and I didn’t want to stand out. After all, my apparent youth and vulnerability had already been on display by the fact that of all the other people standing on line to buy movie tickets I was the one chosen to be the robber’s victim. Predators choose the young, the old, the sick. That was all past now and I wasn’t especially nervous sitting there on that rock, but I think I was not as relaxed as the others either.

The bottle got passed around and I was intensely curious. I took a swig. It was sweet and cloying, like candy. It didn’t taste bad, but I can’t really say I liked it much either. I felt nothing. The next time it came around I just passed it on to the next person. No one seemed to notice that I didn’t drink. That would become my behavior throughout high school. I never drew attention to the fact that I didn’t drink or smoke pot, I just passed it on to the next person. I wouldn’t drink again until I got to college. In recent years, I’ve spoken to people I knew in high school and referenced how “straight” I was. Few people except my closest friends remember me that way. One even swore up and down I drank and took drugs. I think because I was perceived as “artsy” people assumed I was doing things I wasn’t.

Many of the high school age students were taking the same course of study, an introductory course, but not the girl with the spiky black hair. Whereas most of us were interested in “art” without much differentiation among media, she was very committed to photography and seemed to be advanced along those lines already having learned to develop her own film and make her own prints. After a few days, I noticed that she was alone a lot. The other older high school students and aspiring photographers seemed to avoid her. I heard noise coming from her room and the door was open. I walked over and stood in the doorway.

“Come in. Sit down,” she said.

“I thought I was too young for you to talk to.”

She smiled and laughed. “Beggars can’t be chosers.” I might have been insulted, but that was pretty much the same situation for me in much of my life, so I sat down.

“What are you listening to.” It was definitely something I hadn’t heard before. What was coming out of the box was barely more than static. More bootlegs, I assumed. Still, I didn’t know how much to attribute to the poor quality of the cassette or to the music itself.

“Siouxie and the Banshees.”

“I never heard of them.”

The girl with the black hair smiled, “I’d be surprised if you had. I copied this off of a cassette a friend had copied off of someone from England. Can you even hear it? The quality’s terrible. Still, this is all I have of them. I’ve got to find a better recording somewhere.” She hit eject. She took out another cassette. From the writing on the insert I could see it was another homemade tape. “The quality on this one isn’t great, but it’s much better. At least you can hear the music. They’re called the Psychedelic Furs.”

“Are they also from England?”

“I’m not sure, but I think so,” she said.

When the cassette ended she asked, “Do you think I’m weird for liking this?”

 

 

 

Although it felt as if I had been talking about leaving my husband for a year, it was sudden when it actually happened. I felt as if I was drowning or suffocating, so when the words finally came out that he would not compromise and I could no longer bear it, when the fact that we had reached a complete impasse was finally acknowledged, I packed my bags and was complete moved out of the apartment within a week or two.

The next semester of graduate school wouldn’t commence until January. In the meantime, I had found a small apartment above a garage in the suburbs of New York, in a commuter town with easy access to the city. I spent most of my days painting. My shrink had given me Ritalin. He seemed to be convinced that I had ADD no matter how many times I told him I had no problem concentrating. In fact, quite the opposite. Even as a young child I could sit still and do the same thing for hours, especially if that thing was reading. My mother was always scolding me for reading, telling me that I’d grow up to be socially maladapted, and telling my sister to take me out and make me play, goddammit. Still, my shrink was trying to figure out why someone would be intelligent, physically healthy, and even attractive and be such a failure as I was. He never said so in so many words, but I suspect this sounded to him like other patients he’d had. He recommended a book about adults with ADD, which I dutifully read, becoming convinced with each page that I did not have ADD. Still, I took the medicine. I would be going back to graduate school and I was desperate to finally make something of myself. I had even ended my marriage in large part because my ex-husband was not supportive of my professional goals.

With a few months to spare, I was spending most of my days painting. I would take the Ritalin in the morning and plant myself in front of the easel and not move until the sun had sunk low enough that I could no longer see well enough to paint. The apartment was one room and held virtually nothing other than a bed and my easel.

Meanwhile, Nerdette had graduated from her doctoral program just in time for the job market for physicists to collapse. For the past couple of years she had been working in a dress shop in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. She had applied for a position in her field in New York City. “Do you think I could live in New York on thirty thousand a year?” she asked.

“What do you mean by ‘live?'” I answered.

I’d only been back for a week and we met in the city. It was the first time in a long time that I’d been back in New York. It was pleasant night in late summer and we headed to the Village. When I was in high school and we used to take the bus into the city, at Bleeker and MacDougal, there were four Caffes, one on each corner. Over the years, one after another closed. Further up the street, on MacDougal, there was Caffe Reggio. We headed over there to relax for a few hours between Nerdette’s interview and when it would be late enough to go out to a bar or nightclub. It had been a number of years since I’d gone out at night in New York and I was at a loss as to where to go.

Nerdette sat with her back to the sidewalk and I sat facing the other direction enjoying watching the passersby. A tall, light-skinned black man walked by. He first caught my eye because he was remarkably tall. I continued to look because he was so damned familiar. No sign of recognition crossed his face although he had glanced in my direction, and I thought maybe I was mistaken. Suddenly, when he was nearly passed, he came to a dead halt and swung is head around. The corners of his mouth rose into a giant, Cheshire cat grin. He strolled over with that confident gait he had always had pulled up a chair.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world….”

“Treetop! My, how you’ve grown up!” He was just a cute little club kid with purple nail polish and smeared black eyeliner when we first met years ago in a coffee shop in that hour after the bars close.

“Of all the women I knew back then, you were the one I wanted to see again. I always got the feeling that you really liked me, not just the way I looked.” We exchanged phone numbers and promised to get together.

I asked him where we should go that night. He had worked as a bouncer and a go-go dancer. If there was anyone who knew what bars and clubs to hit, it would be Treetop. He looked up at the twilight sky and sighed. “Damn, this city has gotten so expensive. It’s driven out a lot of the more interesting places. Money chokes everything. Young people, to live here they work twenty-four hours a day. It’s not the same.” There was a long pause. “Remember when New York used to be fun?”

Nerdette was in the bathroom putting on her makeup in the mirror. I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling to see my reflection in a small little compact. We were running late. There was nothing new about that, but this time there was a reason behind it. Getting Nerdette to agree to go to the New Year’s Eve party out someplace in Queens took a bit of arm twisting.

“Is his friend going to be there?”

“Yes, of course. He’s his best friend.”

“You’re not trying to fix me up again, are you?”

A few months ago the four of us had gone out together. Tree Top’s main reason for asking his friend was because his friend had that New York City rarity, a car. Somehow, Nerdette got it in her head that we were trying to fix them up. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she did not like Tree Top’s friend, whose name I no longer remember. She also let Tree Top know. So, Tree Top now thought that Nerdette was a snobbish asshole. Nerdette assumed that, because Tree Top was handsome beyond belief, that he must be a vain arrogant asshole. The were both wrong. Nerdette was painfully insecure. Tree Top was a sensitive, smart guy who just happened to be born tall, muscular, with coffee-colored skin, golden brown eyes fringed by thick black lashes, soft curly hair that hung down in ringlets, high cheek bones, a strong jaw line and a deep, resonant voice. It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and say, sarcastically, “What a burden,” but sometimes it was. Just like gorgeous women have people underestimate their intelligence and competence, gorgeous men have that problem too. However, Tree Top probably was the handsomest man I ever dated.

Only an hour or two earlier, Tree Top phoned and asked if we were definitely coming. Finally, Nerdette relented. Tree Top gave us painstaking directions. The A train. Our to Rockaway Boulevard. Sit near the front of the train. Get out at the station exit closest to the front. He’d be waiting for us near the station. Then we could all walk over to a party some friend of his was having. We took turns showering and started getting ready. With luck, we’d be at the party before midnight.

It was a shame that Nerdette hadn’t decided earlier because we could have gotten a lift from his friend with the car. Instead, it was going to be a long haul. The F train to Jay Street Borough Hall where we’d change for the A. Then out to the deepest darkest Queens. It was going to be a long trip. When we got onto the A train, I told Nerdette to relax and settle in. There were more people than you would expect riding the train at that hour, of course that was still not many. Few people were alone. Mostly, people sat clustered in small groups. An odd hour. People going from one party to another, or going to a party late like we were, or maybe just heading home not caring too much that it was New Year’s Eve.

Nerdette and I got deep in conversation. Suddenly, I looked up. We were pulling into a station. Through the windows of the subway car the darkness of the tunnel turned into the brightness of a white tiled subway station. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the word “Rockaway.”

“Oh, my! This is it!” I shouted and we both jumped up and hurried out of the car. As the doors closed and the train pulled away, I said, “I expected we’d be above ground at this point.” I shrugged. What did I know about Queens?

We left the station through the exit near the front of the train like Tree Top had told us and emerged onto the sidewalk. It was a comparatively warm night for late December and, with our coats on, it wasn’t at all uncomfortable. I looked around.

“Not what I expected.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. It looks a little scuzzier than I expected. A little more urban.”

I scanned the street for Tree Top. At six-foot five he was hard to miss. I told him that I couldn’t predict when we’d get there and he had promised to wait.

“Are you sure we’re waiting in the right place?” Nerdette asked.

“He said to sit near the front of the train and to get out at the closest exit.”

“Did he say what the name of the street was supposed to be,” she said, examining the sign on the corner.

“I asked. He said that it wasn’t really a good way to choose a place to meet and that’s why he was going to wait at the subway entrance. He said that the station was located at an odd intersection. We wouldn’t actually exit on Rockaway, but onto Liberty or something.”

“Hey, Kid,” Nerdette said, “Don’t want to say anything, but that sign says ‘Fulton and Rockaway.’ This doesn’t look like the place. Do you think he could have meant the other entrance?”

“That sounds odd, but let’s check that out.”

I felt slightly uncomfortable walking away from the subway entrance. What if Tree Top was delayed for some reason and he’d come and we wouldn’t be there. On the other hand, we’d been standing around for some time now. It was all just odd. The streets weren’t quite deserted, it was New York City after all, but they were pretty damned quiet. Occasionally, we’d see young men in groups of three or four walking by. I didn’t want to worry Nerdette, but it didn’t look like a good part of town to me. As we walked past an abandoned lot, she noted the same thing. “Do you think this area is safe?”

“Are you kidding? Tree Top wouldn’t tell us to get off at a dangerous location.” But I was beginning to have my doubts. I was bothered by the fact that we saw no women on the street and the men we saw were all in groups.

We found the other subway entrance along Fulton Street a few blocks away. Again, no Tree Top and no Liberty Avenue.

We saw a group of about four or five young men cross the street about half a block before us.

“Let’s ask for directions,” Nerdette suggested before stepping forward purposefully and shout, “Hi, there! Can you help us.”

The young men through a glance over their shoulder and hastened their step. “We’re lost!” my five foot one inch hundred pound friend yelled as she took several quick steps that wasn’t quite a run in their direction. It was faintly ridiculous to what several average and larger than average men run away from my tiny friend, however it added to the sense of being in a dangerous place. Wherever we were, we were someplace where people didn’t trust strangers. I don’t know how long we spent wandering back and forth between the two subway entrances, but at some point we heard a bang, and then another bang.

“It sounds like a gun,” Nerdette observed.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, just making up bullshit to make us feel better. “It’s probably a firecracker.”

“I’m from Israel. I know what a gun sounds like.”

Now a cluster of bangs rang through the otherwise quiet and deserted night.

“I guess it’s midnight. I don’t think your boyfriend’s going to show. Let’s go.”

We headed back to the train station and headed underground. Right on the other side of the turnstile were a cluster of teenagers. Several boys and the first girls we’d since we’d gotten off the train. One of the girls approached us. “Has everyone shot off their guns yet.”

“Yes,” Nerdette said giving me a glance that said, “You see I was right.”

“Good,” the girl said. “We can go home now. We wanted to get back before midnight, then when we realized the time we figure we ought to wait here a few minutes. You know,” she said giving us a look like we weren’t quite right in the head, “you really shouldn’t be on the streets at midnight on New Year’s Eve. You could get hit by a stray bullet.”

“Before you go,” Nerdette interjected, “Is this Howard Beach?”

The teenage girl who had been talking raised her eyebrows as did all here companions. “Wow… I know what you did. You wanted the Rockaway Boulevard stop. This is Rockaway Avenue. You want to go to the other platform and get the train going in the other direction.”

“Yeah, well, I think we’re just going to go home now,” Nerdette said. At this point, continuing onto Rockaway Boulevard seemed futile. Tree Top certainly couldn’t still be waiting for us.

“Happy New Year,” the girl said, “and get home safely.”

“You, too. And Happy New Year.”

All the other teenagers called out “Happy New Year” as they headed for the exit.

Almost immediately after arriving at my place the phone rang. Picking it up, I heard Tree Top’s voice on the line, “Are you okay?”

“I wouldn’t be picking up the phone if I wasn’t. You’re not mad?”

“I was, at first. I was waiting. A train came in the station shortly before midnight and I watched while everyone got off. Then I just stood there. It was a long time until the next train. I was a little annoyed, but then you didn’t get off of that one either. Then I was furious, and then….”

“Do you want to know what happened….” I began

“You got off at Rockaway Avenue.” He said.

“Yeah.”

“Jeez. I was so worried when I realized that you were probably standing on the corner in Bed-Stuy. No one bothered you, did they.”

“There was barely anyone on the street to bother us.”

“Well, good. I’m glad you’re okay. My family is getting together for a New Years Day dinner tomorrow. Why don’t you stop by?”

The next day, we were back on the A train, this time headed to the Howard Beach stop. We passed by both the Rockaway Avenue and the Rockaway Boulevard stops. Tree Top still lived with his father in a Cape Cod style house. His whole family was there. Although Tree Top was born and raised in New York City, his father had roots in the South and insisted that we had to eat some black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day because it was supposed to be good luck. The beans stand for health and the greens stand for prosperity.

Jane was not her name, but her real name was an equally common one. In many ways, she was much like her name. Pretty enough, but not a stunner. Slightly taller than average, but not tall enough to stand out. Dark skinned, but not noticeably so. Neither curvy nor boyish. As I try to recall her appearance thirty years later, I can’t even conjure in my mind how she wore her hair. I’m pretty sure she did have hair because if she didn’t I would have noticed.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed her at all in our large school if we didn’t have several classes together, most notably a drama class that had perhaps a dozen students. It’s impossible to overlook someone in a drama class, especially a small one. She was, I recall, always friendly, but in a distant, quiet way.

If Jane was plain, Lola was a stunner. Voluptuous, sultry, a Puerto Rican girl with glossy, black hair, coffee-colored skin and large black eyes. She and I were rapidly becoming friends. I remember one day, standing in the hallway of our school. It must have been lunchtime because none of us were in a hurry. Jane mentioned to Lola that she was having a party that weekend. She asked her to come. She didn’t ask me. I shuffled my feet a little bit and tried to not look too awkward. I was making friends in school, so this wasn’t crushing, and although Jane and I were on friendly terms, we weren’t friends, so it wasn’t a shock that I wouldn’t be invited. I did find it a little strange that she would invite Lola while I was standing there. So, while this wasn’t a huge social humiliation or a dramatic personal blow, everyone likes to be liked and I wanted to be invited.

My discomfort must have been palpable because Jane turned to me and said, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to invite you. My brother and his friends give me a hard time about acting ‘too white.’ It’s bad enough as it is. If I invited white kids to my party, they’d give me so much trouble.”

Prior to attending this school, all my other schools had been mostly white. I could see from my first day there that some sort of self-segregation was going on in the school, but I hadn’t yet learned the whys and wherefores. I say self-segregated, but don’t imagine anything too terribly hostile. Outside the school, there was a grassy area shaded by tall trees along a small stream. If you walked by at lunchtime, you’d see teenagers eating bagged lunches or lunches bought at a nearby shop. You might see a cluster of half a dozen black boys with one white boy or a group of four or five white girls with a couple of black girls. In fact, I’d say that self-segregation along gender lines was more common than along racial lines. However, I had always gone to public schools and was used to mixed sex groups and knew what to expect and how to navigate them socially. A racially integrated school was still new to me. I still didn’t know how to navigate it. So Jane’s reason for not inviting me was in important piece of information. She was experiencing social pressure from her family.

A week or two later, in our drama class, as some sort of trust exercise, we each had to tell the class something the rest of the class didn’t know about us. I was a pretty straight kid with an unremarkable life and finding some deep secret was harder than you might expect. I can’t remember what I said. In fact, I can’t remember what anyone said, except Jane. She told us that her brother and his friends made fun of her for being a “wannabe” because she got good grades. It would be a few years yet before Spike Lee’s School Daze would popularize the term. She said that she told her brother, “I’m not going to get bad grades just because you think getting good grades is ‘white.’ I don’t think being ignorant is being ‘black.’ I going to do what I want to do and be myself and I don’t care what you say.” But she did care, she told us, and she tried hard to act “black” and to not seem “white” in any other way.

This memory was jogged by a short article by John McWhorter, “No, ‘Acting White’ Has Not Been Debunked,” the overall thrust of which is summarized in the title. I followed the link from his article to an opinion piece that was given as an example of the opinions McWhorter was countering. The core of Nia-Malika Henderson’s article, “What President Obama gets wrong about ‘acting white’” is:

The North Carolina based study showed black students, some in predominantly black schools, and others in predominantly white schools, negotiating peer pressure and class selection in much the same way that their white peers did.  The study suggests a common strain that sometimes has poor white kids dealing with the burden of being seen as “uppity” and “snobbish,” and black kids in predominantly white school settings, on occasion grappling with that same notion, with a racialized overlay.  It’s essentially nerds versus jocks, yet it plays out in very nuanced ways depending on the school setting and is complicated by class, race and in-group versus out-group pressures.

….

Harvard economist, Roland G. Fryer, finds evidence that the most high achieving blacks students at predominantly white schools taking a hit on the popularity front, but finds no evidence of the same trend at predominantly black schools. He also finds that “variants on acting white have been spotted by ethnographers among the Buraku outcasts of Japan, Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and the British working class, among others.”

The fact that a similar dynamic is at work in other society and among other groups does not negate the reality that academically high-achieving black students in some communities (note, some not all) are criticized by their family and friends for “acting white.” Now that Henderson has jogged my memory, I can recall having critical things said to me by working class boys about the fact that I got good grades, calling me a snob. It was ineffectual because they were not part of my social circle. Had I come from a family with a strong working class identity, perhaps my response to that would have been different.

It seems to me that the major disagreement between McWhorter and Henderson is not about the facts, but how the facts should be discussed.

One little note, as I experienced it, the conflict wasn’t between “jocks and nerds,” it was between those who felt themselves to be marginalized by the society and those who were trying to be a part of it.

I was looking for a phone in an isolated area. The campus had about as many acres as students, but there were only a handful of public telephones. There were several near the cafeteria and that was where I would go to call my parents about once a week or so. That, however, was one of the most public places. There were two dormitories about two miles away from the center of campus. I had rarely ever even been in one of them, but I had a vague recollection of having seen a pay phone there, so I walked over.

The walk down the narrow curving road with woods looming on either side reminded me of a recurring dream I’d been having for about a year. In it, I was riding a bicycle on a road very much like that one, perhaps slightly curvier. Slowly, I would lose my eyesight until couldn’t see the road anymore. I would try to stop, but instead I’d be speeding up. Through partial vision, I could barely see the road well enough to follow it. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to see anything at all and I would crash. An anxiety dream, it was almost ridiculously easy to analyze.

A precocious student, I had graduated from high school early and received a nice, big, fat helping of scholarship money to attend this private liberal arts college. My first year, I loaded up on courses and was taking more than the suggested number of credits. My grades were excellent. Then my social life began to fall apart and, with it, my grades. I changed majors. Then I changed majors again. A year earlier, I went through a phase during which I didn’t bathe, didn’t get out of bed for days at a time and ate nothing but peanut butter. I received grades of incomplete in all the classes I had taken that semester. I had a year to make them up. The previous semester, the fall semester of my junior year, I finally settled on literature as a major for no better reason than I liked to read and it seemed to come easily to me. Read a few books. Mull them over for a day or so. Churn out twenty pages. I could do that even as I was falling apart. In fact, I felt as if I was finally beginning to put myself back together.

That’s where the anxiety dream came in. Unlike when I was younger, I no longer had a plan. I couldn’t see where I was going, I was just trying to navigate each curve as it came up on me. My grades were finally back up. I was attempting to make a few friends who were not part of a New Age cult. Did I really want to study literature? That certainly hadn’t ever been part of my plan, but now my plan was just to get the hell out of this fucking hell hole of a school with a bachelor of arts degree and my brain intact. What would I do after that? I barely had a clue.

And I had been so alone throughout all of this. When you’re young, and pretty, and talented, and bright everyone wants to be your friend. When you’re lost and confused, no one knows who you are. With help from no one, I was getting back to being someone people actually wanted to know.

Now, there was this.

The dormitory was a converted mansion. It was an odd building. Heavy and dark, it looked as if someone had tried to build a set for a production of Wuthering Heights without ever having so much as seen a picture of England. The first floor was a series of rooms, a kitchen and several other rooms with seemingly no purpose. It was the middle of the day while classes were in session and the dormitory was almost empty, as I had hoped. I walked into one of the purposeless rooms that had an array of institutional furniture that seemed nearly random. An indestructible club chair. A table. A couple of dining chairs. In the corner, as I had recalled, was a pay phone.

I dialed the phone number of the man I had met on New Year’s Eve. It was a long shot that he would even pick up the phone at that moment in the middle of the day, but he did. Without any introduction, I blurted out that I was pregnant, that I would probably have an abortion but male friends of mine had convinced me that it wasn’t fair that women make this decision on their own, so that if he wanted me to continue with the pregnancy we could talk about that. I had planned to add that he’d have to want sole custody, but I can’t recall if I got that far.

How did I know it was his?

Because he was the only man I’d fucked recently.

He didn’t believe me.

Fine, I was planning on having an abortion anyway. I was just trying to be fair to him.

Then this man about whom I knew next to nothing except that he loved Kant and had a larger than average penis, launched into one of the more shocking speeches I had heard at that point in my life. He accused me of trying to trap him into marriage. His family were aristocrats. They would never accept this. I was just a common slut and I was trying to trap him into marriage. He was outraged.

I never spoke to him again.

I’ve been writing down my experiences as a way of understanding why I believe some of the things I believe and why I hold some of the political positions I do. This conversation resulted in me feeling somewhat skeptical of men’s rights advocates when they complain that it is not fair that they have no say in abortion decisions. It’s not that I feel that they are disingenuous about their own position, but that they don’t actually represent men in general. Most men, I suspect, don’t really want the responsibility that this decision entails. Women have abortions, men don’t. Women have to bear the responsibility and the stigma. Many men, perhaps most, would prefer to keep it this way. However, I think I did the ethical thing in approaching this man, and it was obvious that he would have preferred that I hadn’t. I don’t know his position on abortion, but he was a practicing Catholic. One word and I wouldn’t have had an abortion. I don’t think he wanted that responsibility.

A while back, Dan Savage expressed the opinion that women should inform a man if they are going to have an abortion. I agree with everything he says, even the part that many feminists objected to, that the man’s desires should be taken into consideration. However, I think he is underestimating humans’ potential for denial and self-deception when he writes:

Guys need to know when they’ve dodged a bullet, CL. Being made aware that he came this close to 18 years’ worth of child support payments can lead a guy to be more cautious with his spunk—and, in some cases, more likely to support choice.

There’s an interesting assumption that Savage makes here, that what they are dodging are child support payments and not custody of a child, because the only way I would have considered carrying that pregnancy to term is if the man had agreed to take full custody. I can’t be sure, but I strongly suspect that the man in question barely remembers this incident. He probably doesn’t acknowledge having dodged anything at all. It would be all to easy for him to rationalize it away. The incident changed the course of my life and I suspect it didn’t register for him at all.

It was also my introduction to notions about social class. Growing up in suburbia in the United States in an environment in which people ranged from the upper end of stable working class families to the lower end of the professional upper middle class, I was only faintly aware of class differences that weren’t simply linked to income. I’ve had a hatred for social class ever since.

So, why did I go to see him that day? The answer to this question seems obvious to me, but at the same time I am aware that anyone without an intimate knowledge of my life at the time, my effort to visit him that day must seem odd.

The school I’d been attending for the two and a half years prior to that moment had approximately eight hundred students on a campus isolated in a rural area. I know some people who have turned inwards when they encountered social problems at school. They threw themselves into their work and excelled. I couldn’t do that for some reason. I was falling apart. I wanted, indeed needed, a friend. That I found this particular man physically desirable was a secondary interest to me. I rarely have lacked for lovers. I have on occasion lacked friends.

The school I was attending had an unusually long winter break, ostensibly to allow time for independent research projects or internships. My first year there, I tried to arrange one only to find that no professor wanted the extra work. Almost no one else did one either. My sister’s school was back in session, and I decided to go visit her as part of my attempts to strengthen connections to people beyond my own little school. The man I had met on New Years Eve was attending a school that was accessible by commuter train not far from the school my sister was attending. In fact, on several occasion I had gone with her and some of her friends to that neighborhood for some of the nightlife there. The school was the top school in the country for the subject he was studying and had an additional appeal for him as well – the school was a Catholic university.

While I was visiting my sister towards the end of January, I phoned and asked if I could visit. He said, “Yes.” However, when I arrived, I wondered if he had meant that yes. A couple of other friends were visiting and at times I had the distinct impression of being the third wheel, although there were four of us. At this remove, I can no longer recall details of the conversation, but I do recall having the uncomfortable feeling of receiving mixed messages as to whether or not I was wanted there and whether I should stay or go. It was awkward. Yet, at the same time, it seemed to be presumed I would be spending the night.

At one point in the evening, the man said that he wanted to stop by the store located on campus to pick up a pack of cigarettes. When we got there, there was a line and one of his friends offered to give him some cigarettes from his own pack. “Thanks,” the man said, “but I want to get something else as well.” When we finally found ourselves at the counter, in addition to the cigarettes he asked for condoms. The clerk behind the counter replied that they didn’t sell them.

The rooms of the dormitory were arranged in suites, with several rooms surrounding a common area. The man let his friends have his bed and we took some blankets and made an improvised bed on the floor of the common area. Alone, the awkwardness went away and I enjoyed his company again. We agreed that we would not have intercourse since we had been unable to buy condoms. Since I had enjoyed fondling him at the party so much, it seemed possible. In retrospect, it was an amazingly naive idea. Alone with a modicum of privacy and everyone else asleep, we did not stop at fondling.

The following day, the four of us went to an art museum. At first, when they discussed going, I assumed that they would go without me and I would return to my sister’s. Then he specifically invited me. Yet, while I was with them, that feeling of awkwardness returned.

On the way back to my sister’s, I couldn’t figure out if seeing him again had been a good idea or not, nor could I figure out if he was interested in me. It didn’t weigh on my mind too much. I concluded simply that, having extended myself once, that I wouldn’t do it again and wait and see if he contacted me.