When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I got a D in geography. Or maybe it was even worse—an F. I don’t remember. I do remember that when I got home and told my parents, they were not happy with me. I remember feeling misunderstood and lonely and so helpless and mad—the way only a teenage girl can. Life was so unfair. What did my parents understand about me, about school, about the world? And who cares about stupid geography anyway?
My purple boom box—double tapes!—was on a shelf right next to my desk where I was sent to do my homework. I knew exactly what would help me feel better: I popped in the tape from my favorite band, Modern Talking, and put on my headphones. I turned up the volume to full blast on my favorite song, “Cheri Cheri Lady,” and not caring who heard it, sang along as loud as I could.
It didn’t take long for my mom to burst into my room and yank the headphones from my head. I even remember what she yelled: “Cheri Cheri Lady, huh? I’ll show you Cheri Cheri Lady!” And with that she took my headphones, my boom box, and all of my tapes.
This was all before Instagram and Facebook and iTunes. Just finding a picture of the band’s two members, Thomas and Dieter, was an almost impossible mission—especially because I grew up in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, and they were a band from the former West Germany. Whenever a family member or a friend would travel abroad— which wasn’t that often back then—their mission was the same: passing through the Frankfurt airport, they had to pick up the latest issues of Bravo, a German music magazine.
If I was very lucky, the timing was just right and that particular issue would include an article about the band, with pictures to boot. I did hit the jackpot once— a multi-page spread with photos of Thomas’s bedroom. I didn’t even know back then why that was so titillating, but I spent hours with the magazine and a German-Hungarian dictionary. My grandmother—god bless her—sat with me for entire afternoons, pouring over the pictures, analyzing every detail, every lock of hair around Thomas’s perfect face.
Thanks to more sleuthing work and help from my parents, I had a few posters in my room: the one where Dieter is wearing a pink jumpsuit and the one where Thomas is wearing a white tee-shirt and jeans, leaning against a wall, something about his slim hips tantalizingly manly, yet feminine too, and all kinds of confusing.
I think I must have been more attracted to Thomas because he seemed soft and non-threatening to whatever was happening to my budding sexuality. Despite—or maybe because of?—the pink jumpsuit and the blond mullet, Dieter was edgier somehow. He would be the guy who would grab your butt, but Thomas would sit in your frilly bedroom and read you poetry.
I wasn’t allowed to go to their concert in Budapest. I don’t remember the reason why now—maybe my parents thought I was too young, or the tickets were too expensive. The sports arena where they performed was on the way to my grandmother’s house and we happened to visit her that evening. I later told my best friend that as we drove by the stadium, we somehow came upon Thomas’s car and I saw him get out into the rainy night. Though implausible, it felt possible, it felt like being close to someone you love was what really mattered, was close enough to the truth. If I was just right outside the stadium, sitting in concert traffic, I might as well have been right next to his car, to him.
The tears start as soon as I hear the familiar beats.
I’m slightly buzzed and excited when the members of the band take to the stage. The bass thunders in my chest, the blue and gold and red lights circle the small auditorium. His initials, TA, blink on a giant screen—he now calls himself “The Gentleman of Music.” I’m just seven rows back, with a perfect view of center stage.
And then there he is. In a black, sparkly jacket, short, graying hair, tight pants, great shoes. I am always a sucker for a man in nice shoes.
And here I am, sobbing in row G. My husband holds my hand because he can feel my shoulders shake from crying and it takes me an entire song to recover. Only then am I able to let the music take me, to let myself relax and dance and sing at the top of my lungs the words I know so well.
I’m not sure at what age exactly Thomas stopped being my imaginary dream boyfriend. When did I stop feeling that he sang his songs just for me? When did I stop believing that he was looking directly at me from the poster above my bed?
It is so easy to discard and replace a first crush. When you are young, there’s so much life still to come, and in the whiplash of time you forget how important these passions are to your survival, to your understanding of yourself. Fads come and go, your tastes change. But what you don’t know yet is that you yourself don’t really change at all.
I returned to Thomas and his music slowly over the years, as life happened, as it became crucial to have something to hold on to from the past, something that felt like home, like an anchor, a reminder of who I was and where I’ve come from. It’s funny how that happens, how everything you tried to run away from as a child is suddenly filled with meaning and memories as you age. How what you thought was disposable turns out to be an inseparable part of you. It might be buried and dusty, but it’s there.
Access is easy now—his music is on iTunes, his pictures all over Facebook and Instagram. I almost pity the youth who don’t know what it’s like to hunt for an image of their idol in a print magazine.
A few times I sit with my son and we watch some of Thomas’s more recent solo videos on YouTube, especially the one where he plays a James Bond-like spy. The tune is catchy, of course, and he is dashing in a tuxedo and Sam enjoys the sharp ping of bullets ricocheting off the glass walls in one scene.
“Did you scream like a crazy person when you saw him?” Sam asks when I tell him about the concert.
“I did, a little bit, yes,” I answer.
As a teenager just learning English, I was so eager to decipher each song, to understand the lyrics and their meaning. Because clearly, they were about me, and I had to know the secret they were revealing. Now, as his lyrics flash across the screen behind him, I am horrified to find that I have been mishearing certain lines for the past two-and-a-half decades.
Between songs he tells us that he’s been on stage for forty-eight years, since he was six. It strikes me that there’s only thirteen years between us, which, in the grand scheme of things, is not that big of a difference. It’s been at least twenty-seven years since the height of my crush—a lifetime, it seems. My grandmother is dead, the apartment that held my posters and stash of music magazines is a yoga studio, West Germany doesn’t exist anymore, and the stadium in Budapest has been demolished and rebuilt. I have loved and lost and married and given birth and moved and traveled and live in an entirely different country from where I grew up.
But when I look in the mirror, I still see me—the teenage me. In my eyes, I have not changed. But looking at him on the stage, I recognize the signs of aging in both of us: the graying hair, the double chin that’s there if you hold your head at the wrong angle, the body’s thickening outline.
I wonder what he sees as he looks into the auditorium, at us. What does it feel like for him to have watched his audience grow older, to have provided the soundtrack to so many lives, and to have been the marker for so many of when childhood ended and real life began? What has he been through? Has he lost parents or lovers? Does he struggle with parenting? Do his knees hurt after jumping around on stage? Is life on the road weary and lonely? Or does he find comfort in the anonymous silence of hotel rooms? Who provides his soundtrack?
There’s no way to return to being that little girl who rocked out to bubbly pop songs when life was hard and who believed that a handsome man could be the answer to all of life’s problems. There’s no way to bring back prepubescent hips or my childhood bedroom or afternoons with my grandmother. Those things are gone.
But on this night, in the sweaty darkness, the thump-thump of the music takes me back and I feel the familiar sweet achiness of my teenage heart. I still find myself drawn to Thomas’ dark eyes—wrinkles and all—and the next day when I’m sore from dancing and have no voice from screaming, I hope his knees and his voice are all right—and that the music will keep on playing, for both of us.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine with her husband and son and on long road trips they too sing along to “Cheri Cheri Lady.” You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin
I remembered that voice. Cool, soft, diffuse: the kind of voice that you’d have to strain to hear over the noise in a loud restaurant. A voice that rocked you along in its low, gentle waves. I’d always loved the way he seemed to listen more than he spoke. We’d never gone to a restaurant together, anyway.
“I want to know what you remember about me.” I held the phone close to my mouth and watched the curve of my lips in the rear view mirror as I spoke. With the pad of my index finger, I traced the dark circles under my eyes.
“Well, you were a gifted writer.” I flinched at his use of the past tense. I wrote rarely now, if ever. Caring for two children left little time for intellectual endeavors. At times, the contrast between my life now and the way it used to be was overwhelming.
“I have an image of you then.” He paused. “Do you want to hear this?”
I did, absolutely. This was why I’d called him.
“Sometimes, when you would wait outside my office, I’d find you sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading a book. It was very endearing. Most students would just stand there, waiting.”
Sunlight reflected off the windows of the building across the parking lot. I pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes. This was what I wanted to hear, that I was noticed, remembered for an unstudied pose. Did anyone still see me that way? I closed my eyes, remembering that moment. How was it possible that he remembered it, too?
“Why do you want to know this?” he asked.
I paused, thinking. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman reaching back for my twenty-two-year-old self, speaking to someone who remembered the world in which she existed.
“Because you knew me when I still had choices to make about the kind of life I would have,” I said. “I don’t feel like that person anymore and maybe I want you to tell me that I still am, which is crazy, since you don’t even know me anymore.”
“I still know you,” he said. “You were then what you are now: eloquent, serious, thoughtful. I sense no diminishment in you even though we haven’t spoken in ten years. What made you so compelling then is what makes you that way now—you ask hard questions of life, and you expect hard answers. Most people are not that way.”
I leaned my head against the steering wheel and allowed his words to wash over me. I was twenty-two again, self-conscious and bold, fearful and fearless. I saw my future unspooling before me, full of hope and danger.
Twelve years earlier, he had singled me out. I was getting ready to graduate from college, slim and sarcastic and completely terrified. He was filling in for a professor on leave, and so we found each other stumbling around our distinguished college, both of us feeling more than a bit like frauds. I noticed right away how his eyes would linger on me a beat too long after I had finished speaking. I could feel him watching me as I stood up from the seminar table and wrapped a long woolen scarf around my neck. I was young, but not naive; something about me had attracted his attention, and I liked it.
I was taking his class—an intro writing seminar—on a whim. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer and during the semester, I discovered the power that writing had to reveal my inner self. When I wrote, I imagined the professor reading my words as I typed them. He responded to my writing as well as to my presence in the sun-filled classroom. Our connection was palpable and strong.
A few weeks into the semester, we arranged to meet in his office so he could help me with my post-graduation job hunt. While other students pursued corporate recruiting or worked alumni connections in the career center, I scaled the stairs, two at a time, to his office, my long and billowing wool coat, a 1970s hand-me-down from my mother, trailing behind me. When I arrived, he was still meeting with another student, so I sat down on the worn carpet outside his office, my back pressed against the wall, my knees tucked under my chin. A few minutes later, he came out and looked down at me. There was something about his gaze, steady and intense, that emboldened me. I stood up, teetering a bit in my high-heeled boots.
Inside his office, the radiators clanked and hissed. The sun, low in the winter sky, shone through the tall windows, casting everything in pale grey. I could feel his eyes on me as I pulled back the fur-lined hood and undid the toggle buttons of my coat. I slid a yellow folder toward him, and he gently removed the papers that were inside.
I watched him as he read, his dark head bent down toward his desk. He was young, as professors went, although like most college students, I couldn’t have said how old he was, only somewhere between thirty and dead. He had curly hair and a mustache and wore a rumpled writer’s wardrobe: wool sweaters, soft jackets. On his left hand was a gleaming wedding band that I couldn’t help but notice, although it didn’t mean much to me. What attracted me more than his physical appearance was his voice, which was quiet and soothing, and the power of his gaze. When he looked at me, he seemed to see something I only suspected was there.
“These are good,” he said. “You write well, with humor and clarity.”
“Thanks,” I said, looking down. The whites of my knees shone through the smooth material of my tights.
I looked around his office, taking in the high ceilings and sparse furnishings. On the shelf behind him was a photo of two children dressed in colorful bathing suits, the bright blue ocean glistening in the background. I twisted my long hair into a knot, aware suddenly of the curve of my neck.
“So, city girl,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “how did you end up here?” He gestured at the snow-covered quad outside the window.
“Well, not many people from my high school wanted to come here, so I thought I might have an edge.”
He laughed. “Aren’t there other kids from New York here?”
“Yes,” I said, “but not from my high school.” I began to describe my high school, full of brilliant, quirky kids, the kind of school with a Japanese Animation Appreciation Society but no football team. Few of my classmates had chosen the kind of college I had—a politically conservative campus in a one traffic light-town—and now, as the end of college approached, I often wondered what I had been thinking. He listened, his chin resting in his hands, his eyes soft and heavy lidded.
After that day, I looked for more reasons to visit him, to envelop myself in the still quiet of his office and the heat of his gaze. After discussing my job search, I told him about frat parties, late night swims in the river, my hunt for a graduation dress that wouldn’t be seen beneath my robe and a pair of funky shoes that I hoped would be. I told him how my friends roused me from bed at night shouting, “You sleep when you die!” and I would dress myself quickly in layers of flannel and denim and head out to another party. When I spoke, I could feel the way that my youth and energy intoxicated him. I was a femme fatale in duck boots.
I was the one who had rekindled our connection, Googling him one afternoon while my kids napped. He had appeared, suddenly, in a dream several nights earlier in which whatever barrier that had once stood between us was inexplicably gone. The connection between us was magnetic and erotic, and I woke up with the memory of him clinging to me like a wet bathing suit.
I quickly found his email address beneath a recent photo. He looked much the same, grayer perhaps, but his eyes had the same intensity. Was it melancholy? I wondered now. I typed what I thought was a casual note and quickly clicked send. A few hours later, he wrote back: I won’t lie and say your email brought back fond memories of our time together. The truth is, I haven’t stopped thinking about you since.
I was stunned by the intensity of his words. Was he serious? Did he really still think about me? The thought thrilled me, a dollop of intrigue mixed into my domestic routine. We emailed each other a few more times and then set a time to speak on the phone. I didn’t want to call him from my house so I left my kids at home with a babysitter and parked my car in the parking lot of a nearby nursery school.
What was I doing? I asked myself as I dialed his number. This was dangerous territory. I was married now, the mother of young children. I had no intention of leaving my family, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. The young girl I had once been—the one he had known—beckoned me, and her pull felt like gravity. Besides, wasn’t this what he had always done, spoken to me in privacy, out of earshot of his wife and children? I had always assumed that I was a secret he kept from his family, although I had never asked. So maybe it was okay, I reasoned. I wiped my damp hands on my jeans.
He answered after the first ring.
“I think I know why I started thinking about you,” I told him, the words rushing forth. “I’m in the same place now that you were in then—married with two kids. And it’s so hard, harder than anyone ever tells you. So I think I get it now, what you might have been looking for in me. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” he said. “You brought conversation back into my life, the kind that disappears when you’re married and raising small children. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I found it with you.”
I thought about the kinds of conversations I had now with my husband and friends: whose turn was it to take out the trash, please could I drop off the dry cleaning, what was I going to do about summer camp?
“Why didn’t you run away with me?” I asked him, shocking myself with the boldness of the question. “It would have been easier then than it is now.”
“Well, there was a bit of a stigma, don’t you think? The professor running off with his much younger student? Our age difference was a bit more to overcome back then.” He paused. “You also told me you didn’t want that.”
“I did? When?”
“One day in my office. I remember I moved too close to you and you pointed your finger at me and told me to step back. You said, ‘There are lines for a reason.’”
I dug around in my memory like an overstuffed purse. I couldn’t remember this at all.
“Well, you could have fought for me.”
“I suppose so,” he said. “But you’re the one who didn’t meet me in Boston that day, remember?”
I watched a squirrel dart across the parking lot, jerking his head back and forth as he ran. Mothers were walking kids back to their cars, buckling them into brightly patterned car seats, doling out snacks and reprimands and kisses. I wondered what my kids were doing at home. Waking up from their naps, probably, their hair fuzzy, their skin pink.
“Well, we could have tried,” I told him, watching the women ease their cars slowly out of the parking lot, returning to their appropriate lives of duty and routine.
After I graduated from college, our conversations continued. And perhaps because we were no longer face-to-face, they became more intimate. Freed from the boundaries of our teacher-student relationship, we called each other almost daily. I talked about my new life in the city of my youth: entry-level jobs, late nights in smoky bars, the men who came and went. He shared few details about his life with me, and I never asked. I didn’t know the names or ages of his children or what he did after he hung up the phone. I knew he spoke to me from an office with a phone that only he answered, but I didn’t know where it was or what he did there. In my mind, it was tucked in the corner of a clapboard house with a large wooden desk by a window overlooking a leafy backyard. It was always quiet and remote and bathed in a soft green light.
I came to crave these long conversations, the way they removed me from the life around me, a life I wasn’t sure how to become a part of. When we spoke, I heard only his voice soothing me, building me up. My power over him continued to thrill me and could, I discovered, be as erotic as touch. I was as lonely and lost as ever, but on the phone, my life was full of possibility and ever-changing. I wasn’t writing anymore but, in a way, I was, telling him the stories I wasn’t writing down. And he was my most avid reader.
I never stopped to question the propriety of a married man and father speaking on the phone with a woman almost half his age. That it made me feel good was all I cared about, and so I used him and his affirmation of me as material to fill the gaping maw that was my burgeoning self.
After about a year, something happened that pushed us beyond the safe borders that we had established for our relationship, if that’s what it could be called. One day on the phone, I mentioned that my friend Molly and I were planning a trip to Boston to visit our mutual friend Janine.
“Funny,” he said. “I’m going to be in Boston that same weekend. Maybe we can meet up.”
He sounded casual, and I tried to meet his tone. A face-to-face meeting would signify a shift in our relationship from the emotional and intellectual affair we’d been having to something very different. The thought both excited and terrified me. After some discussion, we made arrangements to meet on Saturday afternoon. From my desk in a towering New York office building, Saturday seemed very far away.
When Molly and I arrived at Janine’s apartment, he had already called looking for me there.
“Who is this man calling you?” Janine asked me as soon as I walked in the door. I had never told anyone about the professor, but now it all came out: the phone calls, the wife and kids, our proposed meeting. They remembered him vaguely from school and were appropriately scandalized.
“Holy shit!” Janine said. “I can’t believe you never told us!” Molly raised a pierced eyebrow at me. I laughed and tried to siphon off some of their exuberance for myself. After settling in, I called him from Janine’s phone and we firmed up our plans for the next day. I would meet him in a park on the far side of town. What would happen next, I did not know.
Molly, Janine, and I drank cheap wine from plastic cups and prepped for a night on the town. I wore a short floral dress and chunky Doc Martens, a poor man’s Winona Ryder. “Where’s my Ethan Hawke?” I shouted at my reflection as Molly and I primped in Janine’s tiny bathroom. I put on my best smoky eye and red lipstick while Molly slicked back her cropped hair. Janine slithered into a pair of tight black pants, teased her brown hair high and painted her delicate eyelashes with mascara. She was ready to leave Boston, she told us. “I’m too much woman for this one-horse town.”
At the nightclub, I tried to lose myself in the heat and sound. As I danced, I imagined the professor watching me. I swung my hair around, my neck loose and long. I imagined his hands on me, sliding around my waist and pulling me toward him, the space between us narrowing as we swayed in time to the music, the throbbing bass notes coursing up through the floor and our bodies. I slept fitfully on Janine’s futon that night, Molly’s lanky frame stretched out beside me.
The next day, Molly and I sat together in the front seat of her car sipping coffee out of paper cups and puzzling over a map of the city. She had agreed to drive me to the park where I was meeting the professor and, I suppose, pick me up a few hours later. The details were vague.
“What are you thinking, Daisy?” she asked after a few moments. I kept my head down, unable to meet her gaze.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at the map. The brightly colored roads blended together into an unnavigable tangle. “Do you think I should go?”
“Well, what do you think is going to happen if you meet him? What do you want to happen?”
I tried to conjure up a physical image of the professor, but he was hazy. All I remembered was his voice and the way he made me feel. I was chasing a ghost.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s forget it.”
We tossed the crumpled map into the backseat and Molly cranked up the radio. Liz Phair’s voice blasted through the speakers of the Honda Accord, foul-mouthed anthems of female empowerment pulsing through the car. We sang along until we were hoarse.
As the hour of our meeting came and went, I tried not to think about the professor waiting for me. A few hours later, the phone rang at Janine’s apartment. She handed it to me.
“Where were you?” he said when I answered the phone. His voice was louder than I’d ever heard it before. “I was really worried about you.”
“I decided not to come,” I said.
“Why not?” he said. “You could have let me know. This is a big city. Anything could have happened to you.”
“Oh, so you were worried about me? That’s why you’re calling, to make sure I’m okay?”
I pulled the phone down the hallway, the curly cord stretching behind me.
“Don’t you think this is a little weird? I mean, what are you doing?” I stretched the words out. “Did you really have plans to come to Boston this weekend?”
He said nothing. I felt the outline of everything we had left unsaid pushing against me until I could barely breathe. I wondered where he was calling me from.
“Do you have feelings for me?” I asked quietly. “Do you love me?”
“I think you know I do.”
I exhaled slowly, my heart pounding in my ears.
“Well, that’s why I didn’t come,” I said. And then, after several beats, “I think I have to go.”
“If that’s what you think is best,” he said.
“I do,” I said and hung up.
I stumbled back into the living room where Molly and Janine were sprawled out listening to the Indigo Girls.
“What happened?” Janine asked, sitting up. Molly watched me expectantly.
“He was kind of pissed but, whatever,” I said. And with that, I was swept back into their world, leaving the intensity of the phone call, and whatever it had meant, behind.
And that was how it ended, on the phone, our relationship remaining emotionally charged but physically chaste. I went back to my life in New York and rarely thought about the professor after that day. He remained firmly in my memory, as a part of my past encased in amber. I’d met and married my husband and started my own family without ever thinking of the impact I might have had on his. And yet here I was now, back on the phone with him, listening to the same, soft voice speaking to me in a very different life.
We had never had a physical affair, but did that make what we had done all right? Our relationship existed in a kind of gray area, and I wondered if what we had done was outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a marriage. If he had felt bored, stifled by routine, burden and obligation, was it okay for him to seek a kind of comfort elsewhere? Was it okay for me to do the same?
“Were you happy?” I asked him, gazing out at the parking lot. The sun shone through the trees, sprinkling drops of light on the pavement. “I mean, back when we knew each other, were you happy?”
“I suppose I was,” he said. “Meeting you made me happy.”
“No, I mean with your wife and kids. Did they make you happy? You never spoke about them, and I think I understand why, but looking back, it seems significant to me now.”
I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. “Marriage is complicated, Daisy,” he said. “We do love our spouses and children no matter how disinclined we may be to discuss them.” He was drifting into his cool, detached professor-ese. It pissed me off.
“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a grown-up now, just like you. You don’t need to protect me. You don’t need to be my mentor. Here I am, asking you the hard questions and I want the hard answers.”
“Okay, Daisy, you want the truth?” he said. His voice turned to glass. “Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a happy marriage, today would be a moment to celebrate but, in mine, the day has gone by unnoticed, unacknowledged. Not even a verbal exchange of ‘Happy Anniversary.’ My twentieth was the same, as were many before that. I believe I’ve just given you a ‘hard answer.’ I’d be happy to give you more. I’d be happy to not be mentor-ly toward you, but I’d need to know what you want. And I’d need to know I can trust you.”
The sun beat down on the windshield of the car. Tiny pinpricks of sweat rose along the flat of my lip and quickly turned cold. The parking lot was empty, marked only by the regular grid of white lines. See, they seemed to be saying, there are rules we follow, unquestioning.
“Can I call you again?” he asked.
There it was, the invitation to a life of danger, the one I’d declined many years before in Boston but had asked for again. Did I want it now?
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want. But if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”
I hung up the phone and drove slowly down the street toward home, to my children fresh from sleep, to the trash that needed to be taken out, to the dishwasher that needed to be emptied. It was not a life my twenty-two-year-old self would have recognized, but it was certainly one she would have envied. My world came into focus again, its colors bright and vibrant, technicolor. I felt clean, like crisp white linen drying in the sun. As I moved through the streets of my quiet suburban town, past the familiar houses and trees, I knew that I would not call him again. I’d learned all that I needed to know from the professor.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is the staff editor at Brain, Child. A native New Yorker, she lives in Connecticut with her family.
We piled into a long, rented passenger van. Two of the juniors, Dan and Mike, had already claimed “driver” and “co” and instituted the rule that driver chooses music, setting us up for sixteen solid hours of Phish.
I crunched in next to a wiry kid with a mess of black hair.
“Benjamin.” He grinned, showing off a shiny retainer. “Freshman.”
I was a college sophomore headed out on a road trip from Boston to Savannah with a dozen kids I didn’t know. It was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip—not exactly MTV Spring Break. But, for me, that wasn’t really the noteworthy part.
I don’t need an introvert/extrovert quiz to know where I fall on the spectrum of personality types. I’ve always been a person who lingers most comfortably near the edges of things, enjoying the view from a distance. Even at nineteen years old, my ideal break would have looked more like a low-key trip with a good friend, or week at home in Buffalo with the people who knew me best.
But some small part of me had pushed to try it for once: fall fully and inescapably into the center of something unfamiliar, with a whole group of people I didn’t know pressed in close. And I’m being literal here, because, as I settled into my seat, Benjamin the freshman was making the case that he should be allowed to sleep on me.
“I know we just met,” he said. “But you’re going to know me really well by the end of the week. It’s a long drive. And if I can’t lean on you, I’ll never get any sleep.”
The drive was long. With Phish cranked up and Benjamin nuzzling my shoulder, sleep wasn’t really an option. So I spent the ride trying to catalog the other volunteers by the things they said, the way they interacted.
By virtue of being a senior, Cindy had earned some kind of a supervisory role on the trip, a designation quickly challenged by several of the boys. She was enthusiastic but wavering, an unforgivable combination among ruthless twenty-year-olds. But she had two smart, solid girlfriends with her, and they shored up her confidence. You could see they wanted her to succeed. Eventually, the rest of us would, too.
Anthony from Staten Island was an RA on campus. He had signed up with his friend Eileen and a kid from his floor named Rob. From the moment we all introduced ourselves, Rob began working the refrain, “Come on, Eileen,” a la Dexys Midnight Runners, into every conversation.
There was the soft-spoken, fair-minded guy who was treasurer of student government. The amazing pianist who would spend his junior year studying in South Africa. The pretty, smiling girl who was active in a Christian youth group on campus. There was Beth—alternately friendly and harsh, caught in the push-pull of wanting to fit in and pretending it didn’t matter.
And then there were Mike and Dan. Pushy, I thought. Kind of jerky. But they were the type of kids who pulled the outliers into their jokes instead of making them their (easy) targets. Also? They were really, really funny.
Along with being an introvert, I was a person known to develop crushes on smart, funny boys. Driving across those ten states, as we neared the end of our drive, I was falling hard for Mike.
Like the children we still were, we found ways to debate everything from seating arrangements to whether beef jerky was an acceptable snack choice. But there were long, quiet spells where no one said anything at all. And there were discussions about things that mattered, too, like the fact that we were getting a chance to help build a house that an actual family would live in.
A few hours into the drive, someone brought up the subject of abortion, and the exchange got heated, fast. Beth’s voice trembled. She seemed about to cry. Cindy and her friends exchanged a look, and stopped talking. The silence hovered there in the thick air of the van. Then, carefully, someone started a new thread—something light. And someone else picked it up. And just like that, we were a group of people who looked out for one another.
We passed a hand-lettered, misspelled sign on the road: “Acers of land for sale,” someone read. “Ace – ers of land.” And then someone screamed, “Yeah! We made it! We’re in the south!”
The house we were to stay in was a mustard-colored ranch set up with several rooms of bunks for Habitat volunteers. I was glad when Anthony called to me, “You wanna bunk with us?” He, Rob, and Eileen had kept up a steady stream of lighthearted bantering and bickering since we’d all met in the van. They were easy to be around. All I had to do was laugh.
The work would start Monday, but first we had the rest of the weekend, beginning with a night out in Savannah. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, so we planned to head downtown to a popular Irish bar. I was glad I’d packed a little makeup along with my work jeans and tee shirts.
“Is that my brush?” Eileen asked, as Rob checked his hair in the mirror over the bedroom’s one small dresser.
“Oh, come on, Eileen,” he shouted back.
We drove into the city and found parking; we weren’t even through the door of the bar when a beaming blond girl flew into Mike’s arms out of nowhere. A girlfriend. Of course. She—Amy—and her friend were sailing the friend’s dad’s boat (I know) down the coast for spring break. They had run into us coincidentally, we were assured, with no previous planning between Amy and Mike, on our one night out in Savannah.
“Man!” Mike said. “Can you believe this?”
No. I really couldn’t.
One night later in the year, my roommate Caroline went out to see a popular band—Living Proof—that was loved mightily for its covers of new wave songs. Disappointed she couldn’t convince me to join her and her new beau, Caroline went to the show dragging her feet a little. But she came home effervescent. Drunk on keg beer, she gushed about this beautiful nameless girl, who had spotted her not having fun and pulled her out on the dance floor, turning her night around.
Caroline called her The Living Proof Girl, which became shorthand for the enviable, carefree spirit who approached college—and life in general—with a seemingly effortless upbeat attitude. Be charming and pretty! Dance with strangers! Infect the world with your happiness!
Soon after we went to see the campus improv comedy group, My Mother’s Fleabag. Caroline said, “It’s her,” at the same moment I thought it. We both recognized the girl on stage for different reasons. The star of Fleabag was The Living Proof Girl. Who was Mike’s girlfriend. Who was Amy freaking Poehler.
(“You’re funnier then she is,” my friend Kim said recently when I told her this story. “But I think she’s got you beat in the tits department.”)
My heart sank a little as Mike melted into Amy’s hug. But I had only known him for a matter of hours. I swallowed my Guinness and made myself start conversations with the other volunteers. I even tapped my Irish American upbringing and requested songs from the band. The singer asked where I was from, then gave our group a shout-out into the microphone. I had fun.
The next day, Sunday, we had planned to drive to Hilton Head. But Anthony wanted to go to church first, and we had only one van.
“Guys, I haven’t missed Sunday Mass my whole life,” he said. “You can’t wait an hour?”
There was grumbling. Silence. He looked around at the group, pleadingly.
“I don’t think we can make someone miss Mass for the beach,” I heard myself say. Anthony had pulled me into his little crew when I was apart from the crowd and I owed him one.
It turned out Anthony had gotten the time for the service wrong, so he would miss Mass after all. But he seemed grateful we’d made the effort, and I was glad I’d spoken up.
At the beach I sat taking in the view of the Atlantic, seeing it for the first time from a place other than from the New England Coast. It was chilly out, which didn’t stop some of the girls from peeling down to bikinis. People swam and screamed and splashed each other. I was happy to sit on the beach and watched, wiggling my toes in the sand, wondering what else the week held.
In the morning, the alarm sounded early.
“Ugh!” Rob groaned. “Come on, Eileen.”
We were putting up the framework of the house. When had I held a hammer before? To hang cheaply framed posters over my bed? The nails bent at odd angles or went in sideways. Wood splintered. I was sweating, and my shoulders ached. Jack, a guy who lived on the property in a trailer with his dog and managed the volunteers, walked around offering guidance. I swung the hammer. Thwack thwack thwack. When a nail bent or broke I wrenched it out again. Eventually, I could set those nails in perfectly and my beams came together, part of a wall that was part of a house that a family was going to live in.
Mike and Dan walked over with a sledgehammer.
“Ma’am, this wall is going to have to come down.”
“This is going to hurt us more than it hurts you.”
“Don’t laugh, ma’am. You should probably look away.”
We watched the walls go up. We filled them in. Jack handpicked the best workers to hang the drywall. We screamed and cheered because, at that age, when you accomplish something big, you can still do that.
One morning there were gnats—no see-ums, people called them. They descended on you and filled your nose and mouth. I was near tears. Bug spray didn’t work, the nets on your head helped but obscured your view, and no one else was wearing them. I snuck back to the house, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and used the house phone to call my sister. “Why did I do this?”
I pulled myself together. Back outside, a little rain descended and drove the bugs away. We celebrated.
Another day, Beth cut her hand using the table saw and Jack had to take her for stitches and a tetanus shot. While they were gone, we lazed around a bit. There was chalk on the worksite and Mike splayed across the ground and had me trace his outline like a body at a crime scene. Then he called Jack’s dog and coaxed it to lie beside the tracing so that he could trace the dog too. Laughing, I took a picture of their two empty outlines.
Our last night in Georgia, Cindy hooked up with the freshman.
“Tell me you didn’t have sex with him,” one of her friends fumed.
“She would,” Beth said acidly.
And the confirmation was written in the grin on Benjamin’s face.
Mike gave me a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of exaggerated shock and I had to leave the room and laugh.
Back at school, I mailed off my rolls of film and when they came back, I bored everyone I could with photos of the house going up. I slipped the crime scene picture into an envelope, carefully wrote out Mike’s address and dropped it in the mail. And soon after I got an envelope from him—an invitation to the party he’d promised us all he’d throw at his off-campus apartment.
I went alone. The Savannah group came, in pairs and with roommates or on their own.
“That picture was so great,” Mike said to me.
I walked around his apartment and saw a picture of him with Amy and then, eventually, the real Amy, hanging out and laughing in a hallway.
I stood next to Beth, watching Mike laugh with a group of his friends.
“I had such a crush on him,” I said.
“Who didn’t?” she answered dismissively.
There wasn’t a lot for us—any of us—to say to each other now that we were back on campus. But somehow, that seemed okay. It seemed, in fact, exactly right. The experiences we’d shared together, and whatever we’d learned about ourselves as individuals, weren’t the kind of things we needed to say out loud.
Content to leave it that way, I finished my drink and slipped out without saying goodbye.
Junior year at a football game, I was walking through the stadium with a boy when I saw Mike and Dan in the crowd, running toward me.
They spotted me, whooped, and each grabbed me in a hug, and I felt like my face would break from smiling. I introduced them to my boyfriend and they shook his hand because we were in that strange world where adulthood and childhood, job interviews and football tailgates, collide. Mike, who was then a senior, put his hands on my shoulders and leaned down.
“You’re good?” he asked, while the crowd roared around us. “You’re good?”
“I’m good!” I grinned back, and he squeezed me in a last hug.
“Good luck,” we called to each other, and laughed. And headed back toward our futures.
Twenty years later, I’ve discovered via the magic of the web that Mike is even handsomer than I remembered, with three equally photogenic kids hanging off of him in his Facebook picture. Dan is a New York Times bestselling author who has been interviewed on all the major news shows. Amy Poehler continued to pursue her interest in comedy. And the guy who shook hands with Mike and Dan at the game? He’s my husband, and we have two (adorable, hilarious, introverted) kids.
KAREN DEMPSEY has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at kdempseycreative.com or follow her @karenedempsey.