Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Holding Hands In the Mall


The first girl I ever loved, deeply and with my whole being, was Karen Johnson.  I remember my mother letting me dress myself for kindergarten, a policy she probably kept for self-amusement as I would walk to the bus in a tiny white linen suit.  Perhaps it was due to my suave and ultra-cool genes kicking in prematurely, or maybe because I had seen Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” about 500 times, but I knew I had only one shot at true love.  Just the night before I had wandered down the toy aisle of the grocery store and pleaded with my mom to buy the plastic gold colored heart chain that would surely demonstrate my feelings for dear Karen.  My mother smiled and asked “what do you need this for?”  “For a girl, momma.  I love her.”  She laughed, “Oh you love her, do you?”  I fell to my knees, pleading to her “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall in love…it just happened!”  It was clear to her, although I had no thoughts other than pure terror and exhilaration, that I had reached a milestone.  A new and very powerful piece of software had been installed in my brain, one that would help govern decisions and drive actions for years to come, despite its’ unfortunate habit of crashing from time to time.

Hi Karen, it's me again...pick up!
 It pains me to say it, but Karen and I did not last.  I saw her coloring with my backstabbing friend Richard after nap time. She was stuck up anyway.  I’m willing to bet we have all felt this puppy love at one point or another.  Every few years came a new lesson.  Why do I want to throw things at the back of that girls head on the playground and pinch her until she cries?  Isn’t this how you show affection?  For some girls, this may be just what they want, but as a general rule it shouldn’t be carried out past the playground years.  For all my effort I was finding my understanding of these long haired creatures sparse, let alone the confusing feelings I suddenly was forming for them.  When you find something or someone has the ability to enter all parts of your mind through the poorly guarded heart, you cannot help but admire the power of their beauty…it also wouldn’t hurt to develop a healthy fear of playing with such power.

While enrolled at Loretto, a boarding school in Edinburgh, I developed a crush for Jill Ritchie. She was an older girl who went to the neighboring all-girls school.  If you have ever seen the movie “flirting,” with a young Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton, then you have a pretty good idea of what boarding school is like for a lad such as myself.  We lived in a self-sustaining community that is designed to promote education, physical fitness, proper manners, a thirst for life and a hunger for knowledge!  All the while, staying within a campus surrounded by 12 foot stone walls.  Life on the inside was relatively civilized, after all we were brothers in arms, fellow classmates and warriors on the rugby field day in and day out.  However, as soon as Mr. Dickenson’s young blonde wife would stroll across campus we would club each other over the head with our heavy bounded copies of Macbeth in order to get a better glance, fleeting as it might be.  The notion of “love” was bound to evolve as we noticed girls develop physically, causing us men to devolve mentally into chest beating apes.  Perhaps the school, with its fortress like barricades, was designed to prolong the mental development of us little nippers before we hear the inescapable tune of the sirens song and spend puberty drifting towards their rocky source. 

Me looking cute. Paul looking..smart

The school could not keep us caged up and twisting in the wind forever.  From time to time they would bring in a group of girls from the neighboring campus for a social gathering like a dance.  This wasn’t you’re typical “throw the kids together and hope they don’t get pregnant” kind of school dance, this was a proper and respectful waltz. The waltz is a closed dance style, which meant hips would brush hips as you glide across the floor and, if you’re lucky, the shoulder area might brush against something that would be the highlight of your week.  It is funny to think now that this dance was banned by Missionaries and early settlers of the US for its sinful closeness…if I ever go back in time I want to show them a twerking video and see if their heads explode.

So anyways, this dance had all the awkward tension of any other organized dance.  Boys stood on one side of the room, nervously joking with one another while trying to size up the visiting team, and then had to take the steps across the dance floor with full knowledge that everyone’s eyes will be upon you as you extend your hand to the chosen debutant.  Jill just happened to be the shortest distance.  We danced and talked about school or whatever and then it was time to leave.  I asked to write her, this was pre-cell phone days after all, and so we became pen pals.  She was one of my best friends, always remaining nothing more of course as we are talking third grade here people, and my letters from her were like a glimpse inside the wolf’s lair of a totally foreign regime.  Her handwriting was aesthetically beautiful; round and bubbly, like the kind I would stare at in later years as girls would write their names over, and over, and over again in their notebook margins surrounded by hearts and stars. Her worries and concerns were unlike mine, likewise her goals and outlook on life was also refreshingly different.  You can never imagine the joy of receiving a letter from a girl on the outside with funny stories and Garfield stickers on it unless you had been there…or maybe if you’ve been in prison.  It is also hard to describe the pain felt to move away, it was astonishingly Shakespearean for a young heart such as mine.  I guess I was always drama king.

What I had found was a kind of pain that was almost perversely enjoyable.  Gradually, after the tears for Karen or Jill or whoever I loved for that three day stretch in grade school were long gone, I was left with this overdose of affection and sympathy from my parents.  I could get away with things which normally would get me in trouble.  If my brother tried our usual cat and mouse routine at the table and I happened to let an F bomb slip out I could not be held accountable, I was a man apart!  And shame on him for picking on poor, sweet little ‘ol me. I was drunk with power.  Later however this was not so much a chance to get Paul in trouble as it was an opportunity to show that part of myself I had spent so much effort to cover up.  Sometimes feeling sad and crying is a huge release, like releasing a steam value that was set to blow.  Not that I ever cried, I work out and hang up drywall whenever I’m sad.  Theoretically if I had, the only witnesses I would allow to my laments would be my faithful Australian shepherds Matildia and McGregor.  Try being sad or upset around a good dog and they will come lay their head in your lap to absorb your sorrows.  Cats on the other hand…well, cats are assholes. 

Me reflecting on a lost love
Fast forward through the pimpled, awkwardly dressed and baby fat days to the prime years of college; a time when you are actually responsible for holding down real commitments and relationships on top of juggling roommates, multiple jobs and of course keeping up with social circles.  It’s a wonder there’s any time for schoolwork at all!  But relationships were formed and I found I had learned to importance of being a friend first and foremost.  Not holding grudges about personal differences so that in time, long after we break up and start separate lives, we can still call to catch up and remember that something special is exchanged through connecting with another human being.  My first college girlfriend and her husband just welcomed a daughter into the world and I am so happy to know them both and be able to share in their joy as a friend who will always be there.  I remember sitting with her once at a coffee shop and noticing two kids awkwardly walking through the mall holding hands.  His face gave away his giddy sense of accomplishment and she had a smile that breathlessly spoke: “this was her man, they had chosen each other.” I smiled and told her that I would one day write about what I had just seen, what exactly that was I wasn’t sure, but I knew I recognized something universal.  Making a connection with anyone these days is hard enough, you might as well fight for the people you have cared about past and present.  Sometimes you need to get outside your own head and just enjoy the human connection.

There is no “One person for everyone”.   I used to pull my hair at this thought, how could I know if the one for me was in Ohio or Iceland?  Do I have to meet everyone in the world first before I give my heart to someone?  I think the proper approach is to stop weighing options and searching for excuses and flaws, cause guess what…you’ll find one.  But that’s ok, God knows you got plenty of your own (you, not me!).  My new understanding of love is seeing a flaw in someone, or at least a perceived flaw they might be self-conscious about, as an opportunity to show them how beautiful they really are.  It’s the human condition to feel flawed and lacking perfection.  This is why we fit so well together, we can fill the void in one another's soul and feel complete.  The Greek Gods Apollo or Aphrodite, the ultimate symbols of beauty and perfection, couldn’t be capable of such feelings as they have nothing left to attain, and nobody they need. I think a force of nature that can cause your knees to weaken at the mere sight of that special someone or launch the entire Trojan War is a force which deserves reverence.  Love should itch in your veins like an addiction, something that flows through you and polarizes every ounce of your being to gravitate towards someone who makes you feel good.  Your confidant, your best friend.