My sophomore year of college, I was a thin, small girl with a pierced lip and pixie-short hair and a mildly broken heart and it was because of this last item that I left myself make a mistake by the name of Lee. This was such a small moment in the great, growing swath of my life, this frozen semester of weeping over romantic comedies and thrashing angrily to loud music and getting drunk off Malibu coconut rum which I didn’t even like. Such a small moment. Over the course of the last decade, these few months I spent with Lee have barely registered. They have been a blip. He did not hurt me badly, nor did he teach me any great life lessons. He did not matter, hardly at all.
But I think about him often, and the day I first let him kiss me, because that was a mistake.
In September, just a week after I returned to the college I loved, my high school boyfriend dumped me by phone. He was the first boy I’d ever loved, the first boy I’d ever slept with, and I was so heartbroken I couldn’t swallow through all my anger. I did things mostly to punish myself – shaved my head and pierced my lip a second time and skipped months of classes and almost flunked out of college. I couldn’t breathe if I wasn’t in someone’s company and talking incessantly and if I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure one-hundred percent of the time that someone loved me.
About six weeks into this phase, I met Lee. He was younger, a freshman. He was mumbly. I didn’t find him particularly attractive – he had long, swooping hair that he constantly tossed out of his eyes and acne and big, dry hands.
But that isn’t really the important part of the story.
I met Lee through a close friend of mine, Zoe, a small girl who shared classes with him, and who had a crush on him. When she first introduced us, on the green lawn in front of the Communications building, I could tell instantly that he was attracted to me. I found this another of his annoying traits – that was the kind of mood I was in. I didn’t want anyone to be attracted to me. I wanted to repel men for awhile, to become a magnet pushing them away. I had given it up for a boy who had broken my heart and damned if I was going to do that again. They could all back off.
That first afternoon, after Lee left, Zoe told me that Lee and another mutual friend of ours, Emma, had the kind of part-time make-out arrangement that breeds easily in a dorm setting. I wrack my brain for the details of this conversation, lost to time, or perhaps to the myopic selfishness that plagued me at the time. It must have been October? Was it clear then that Zoe already had a crush on Lee? What was I willfully ignoring?
A few days later, Zoe told me that right after meeting me, Lee had told his make-out buddy they should cool off. Zoe’s impression was that Lee was interested in pursuing me, so he broke things off with Emma.
I remember when I found this out, I actually laughed. Here was a bumbling, pimpled boy who barely had the courage to speak to me and he actually thought I – older, smarter, far more worldly and jaded – would be interested in him?
My bravado was all put-on. I tried so hard to look the tough-girl part, jutting my snake-bite piercings out and bobbing my head to punk rock as I stalked between my classes, but I was just a 19-year-old whose high school boyfriend broke her heart, lonely and vulnerable and with pathetically low self-esteem.
So when Lee asked me the next weekend if I wanted to go see a movie with him, I said yes.
I said yes, even though the movie he wanted to see was some shitty action thriller. I said yes even though he didn’t have a car on campus so we would have to take three buses to get to the theater. I said yes even though all my friends were going to a concert I would have much rather seen.
I said yes even thought I knew he had hurt my friend.
That’s the important part of the story – that’s the part I regret.
In my undergraduate creative nonfiction workshops, I begin each semester with a writing prompt that asks students to interrogate their own silences as essayists. Make a list, I say, of all the things you would never write about. What’s too painful? What’s too new? What’s too private? After they’ve been jotting notes for a few minutes, I ask them to look back over the list and add because clauses to each item – why they would never write about each subject. This way, they can share their reasons with the class, without having to share the material.
The reasons for wanting not to write about something are always revealing, and after a few classes, I’ve come to think of them as falling into one of two categories: for someone else’s sake, or for our own. We may choose not to write an essay because it would hurt, or incriminate, someone else. We may choose not to write an essay because the story, compelling as it may be, doesn’t really belong to us.
But often, the only people we’re looking to protect are ourselves.
This semester, a student raised her hand and said, I would never write this because it was not my proudest moment.
And that, I told them all, is exactly why it’s worth writing. Our impulse, as human beings, to shield ourselves from judgment, or to hide our faces in shame, runs exactly counter to the duty of the personal nonfiction writer – which is to confess, to open, to lay bare.
I’m not, I tell my students, advocating exposure of the self for purely voyeuristic purposes. We don’t share our mistakes just to jar the reader or lighten our own hearts – we confess because this is an act of empathy. We confess because our readers have secrets, too.
My friend, the writer Amy Monticello, once wrote that “effective confessional writing doesn’t reveal the worst parts of the writer for the sake of unburdening or shock; there’s a humanitarian goal behind it.”
This is why some of my favorite novels, both classic and contemporary – The Stranger, The Great Gatsby, My American Unhappiness, Freedom – have narrators or protagonists who cannot seem to keep themselves from fucking up. They are flawed, complex, at times deeply unlikeable characters. And we love them for the way they echo us. We are drawn to narratives of imperfection, of dishonor because, while it’s easy to write a character that shines with glory, it’s nearly impossible to live that way as a human.
The few months of my relationship with Lee were a blur of such stupidity that looking back on it, I can barely understand how it all happened. How I allowed it all to happen. How I allowed Lee to convince me to call him my boyfriend, despite the fact that I told him from the get that I didn’t want a relationship. How I allowed him into my bed after a matter of days, despite the fact that I couldn’t look at him while he was on top of me. How I allowed him to convince me to have sex for the first time with my roommate asleep on the top bunk.
Somehow, three months later, he was breaking up with me over the phone, home for Christmas break and hooking up with an old girlfriend. Somehow, I was the dumpee again, and I couldn’t have been angrier with myself. I stumbled around thinking, wait. He was into me. I planted myself permanently in front of the computer at my parents’ house, instant messaging frantically with the girlfriends I’d neglected for the last three months, who said all the right mean things about him. I was just so confused. How had I ended up here? Wait.
Nearly a decade later, I barely remember most of my relationship with Lee. What I do remember is the night, a few weeks after we broke up, having maintained a friendship, that Lee and I were sitting together in our college’s radio studio. He was on the air, the midnight to two a.m. shift his to play all the sad ambient chamber pop he wanted. I was moping in the room with him, instant messaging my friend Bell about how little attention Lee was paying me, about how I didn’t know why I still hung around him when it made me feel so bad about myself. About how much I wanted some ice cream or cheese puffs.
Ten minutes later, Bell walked through the door of the studio and told me we were leaving. Lee protested, saying he needed my help picking records and finishing his communications homework, but she wasn’t taking no for an answer. We climbed into her car and drove straight to her apartment, stopping at the gas station up the hill for ice cream and cheese puffs, and spent the rest of the night lying in her bed, beneath her pink comforter, watching Sixteen Candles on VHS and forgetting about him.
All this, while a good friend of hers was visiting from Canada. All this, she did for me.
There’s another reason to write a confession, the same reason we say I’m sorry after a fight, even when we know we can’t undo the damage. There’s something about the phrase that acknowledges wrongdoing. That says, I know I can’t take it back, but I love you enough to want you to know that I know I was wrong.
I was 19, 20. I was a girl. I had a broken heart. Lee is one of two guys I’ve slept with that I shouldn’t have, and he didn’t damage me in any way. I cried for maybe a day. It may have been stupid or naïve or a little easy, but I genuinely don’t regret sleeping with him.
What I regret is losing myself to him. The mistake I made in sleeping with Lee was sleeping with someone that a woman I cared about already had feelings for. When I think back to this semester, I don’t cringe at his fumbling attempts at romance or his bang-tossing or his weak-willed break-up. I cringe at myself. I cringe at the notion that I was ever such a bad friend.
Luckily, our friends forgive us these mistakes. When Emma eloped to Las Vegas to get married last spring, she sent me an invitation to the party, though it would be in Yonkers and I was in Kansas. When I read in Los Angeles last fall, Bell traveled up from San Diego to spend the weekend with me. In the decade since then, I have maintained a friendship with Zoe, who first introduced me to Lee, with Maya, the roommate who put up with our bottom-bunk antics, and with every other close female friend I had that semester.
I have no idea what Lee is doing now or where he is, and I have no desire to find out.
The mistake I made was not having my priorities straight – not having the maturity to see who was going to be there for me in the darkest moments, who would bring me ice cream, who would let me take her car when I just needed to drive, who would save me from myself. The mistake I made in sleeping with Lee was not being able to see who really loved me, and who really mattered.
Now that I’ve written it down, maybe I won’t make that mistake again.