Gas

By Seth Sawyers

Memoir

Sure, I tutored other kids during the free period after lunch. I took maybe not the hardest classes but the second-hardest classes. I started on English papers at midnight, nailed the SAT, was a Chemathon alternate. All of that came easy. That was school. But then there was not-school.

Not-school was my buddy Jesse and me sitting on his back porch one afternoon, staring at the netless basketball hoop that stood crooked at the head of the driveway. A cheap rubber Spalding rested in a patch of ivy, the top of the ball sun-bleached pale orange. I rocked in my chair, thinking of ways we could get a ride to the Constitution Park pool where there would be long, tanned girls in bikinis, girls who you could tell didn’t like getting their hair wet. But no one was around. We had no car and were too old for bikes. So we sat on the back porch, waiting. I was always waiting. It was just that Jesse made the waiting easier, or better. He made the waiting hum, like a power line.

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The author in high school

This essay is part of a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers, artists, and musicians who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show Twin Peaks. To read more, or to learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.

Thanks to my library’s tattered copies of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone that were encased in protective blue binders, (wrapped in plastic!), I knew the exact night some highly anticipated and highly bizarre show was going to debut. The critics were freaking out about the premiere of Twin Peaks, saying it was the weirdest thing to hit TV ever, so I—an identity-hungry fifteen year old kid on the brink of a major hormone and brain chemistry explosion—made sure to watch its arrival in the spring of 1990. The very first seconds of the title sequence shocked me into silence. It wasn’t what I saw that floored me; it was what I heard. Don’t get me wrong, the mythology took hold as the story unfolded, particularly the central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, and why. But composer Angelo Badalamenti’s score was aural heroin.

Did you know that the bird in the opening shot is a Varied Thrush? When I watch the show now, I feel like his look mimics my own from that night when the first bass note hit. His head cocked up to the cloudy sky roughly translates to: “What the hell is that sound and where did it come from?” We both froze in rapturous attention.

Admittedly, I was stoned. But I’d never heard a resonance so deep, so thundering, and yet melodious. The first boom is cautiously wistful, and the second drops several octaves into a dark pit. The third note rises quickly back up to meet the first two somewhere in between, while the piano is a wisp of smoke in the background. I could actually see it.

Once that week’s show was over, there was no way I could get that music back until the next episode. During those pre-internet days, I only had one shot at viewing a program unless I recorded it on the VCR, which I did for the second episode. I watched the opening credits over and over, staring so hard at the screen that everything blurred into leaping green and black dots. For the next two months, I rushed home every Thursday night to watch the show.

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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

About A Bout

By JJ Keith

Memoir

“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”

He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”

I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.

“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today is a big day. It’s the halfway point! I’ve written 15 stories in 15 days and I can see a light at the end of a very long 15-more-days tunnel! Thanks for coming along with me this far. Please do not leave me now, because I am afraid of tunnels–even metaphorical ones.

Today’s story is all about teen angst and high school hijinx and how intelligent discussions about s-e-x are avoided at all costs.

It is, as always, absolutely true.

 

Reformed Schoolgirl

Did you know that the press is not allowed on public school property without permission from school administrators?

That’s what I learned my senior year of high school, after alerting the local Channel 12 news team about a newsworthy predicament I thought needed some attention. I called on behalf of a group of students who felt abandoned, unfairly punished and unnecessarily censored. And I had no idea how much trouble I would cause with one tiny little phone call to one tiny little local news station.

Okay. I had some idea.

It all started in rural Texas, of course. I lived in a lakeside community out in the country, and attended a nearby school in a town with a population just under 200. I had moved from the bustling-metropolis-by-comparison Palm Springs, California, to what seemed like the middle of nowhere–a town with a gas station, a feed store, a couple of Baptist churches and not much else. There were 38 other kids in my class; the entire student body was barely enough kids to earn a Swarm badge on FourSquare.

Not that there was a FourSquare. It was 1989–before the internet, before cell phones–Hell, it was even before Super NES. Our Nintendo was decidedly un-super!

Back then, in Texas schools, your football-coach-to-kids ratio was pretty high. I’d guess a third of the faculty spent part of its time coaching some athletic team or another. But they also had to clock time as teachers, which is why my Geometry, Chemistry, Journalism, US History, and Health teachers were all referred to as “Coach.”

The coach who taught my Health class was a first-year teacher, really young and good looking and generally regarded as “cool” by the kids in his class. For example, I once bet him he couldn’t stop drinking Dr. Pepper for a week, and when I caught him with a can in hand, he lived up to his end of the bargain and removed 10 tardies from my permanent record. (Ok, haha, I know. Remember when having a “tardy” on your “permanent record” was a big deal? But it was a big deal then, which is why it was cool of him to remove mine in bulk, as the result of some silly bet.)

He didn’t stay cool for long.

Coach had assigned us a project for health class–something vague and wide open with possibilities. We were supposed to create some sort of presentation that incorporated what we had learned throughout the year. I was a drama nerd and an overachiever, so I came up with the idea that I would put on a play–a play about sex. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I thought about how I could take a shot at directing, and how we could perform it in front of the whole school, not just the other kids in Health class, and how it was going to be so much fun and slightly scandalous and that this was going to look so good on my college applications!

The play I found was called “Dolls” and is described as “a face-to-face telling of young people’s stories to young people by young people.” Honestly, it’s a little pro-lifey for my tastes, but I knew it was a safe bet for school administrators who may be afraid of parental outrage. It was frank without being graphic; safe, while still addressing sexual consequences in a meaningful way.

And there was no denying that the kids in my high school could use a little extra sex ed. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a big city school represent a tiny fraction of the student body. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a class of 39 represents half the Student Council. And you can pump your kids full of all the small town family values you want, but after all the cows have been tipped, there’s not a lot to do in the country, which makes drinking and fucking the top two ways for kids to spend time together.

I made my pitch to Coach and he thought putting on a play was a fantastic idea–he even offered to be in it. He became our official faculty advisor and attended the first few rehearsals as I put the cast and crew together. He also let me bring in my drama teacher–also a young, first-year teacher–as an additional faculty advisor who could help me learn to direct. Both teachers were still under the impression that enthusiasm and creativity should be encouraged among enterprising students. Both were about to find out otherwise.

I developed a short presentation for the principal, with hopes that I could convince her to let us perform the play for the entire school. She dismissed the idea, arguing that without parents’ permission, we wouldn’t be able to expose the students to any kind of sex education outside the approved curriculum, regardless of how reserved, how timid or how compelling. The next day I returned to her office with a stack of permission slips I had typed up myself and asked how she would like me to distribute these to the parents. Unprepared to respond, she sent me to the school superintendent to solicit his permission, knowing he would never give it and I would subsequently leave her alone.

The superintendent seemed overwhelmingly disinterested in anything I had to say, but didn’t say “no,” which gave me hope. He mumbled that he would take a look at the play and get back to me.

Two days later, I had gathered the cast after school for a rehearsal. This thing was finally coming together! Then Coach showed up with a look of concern on his face. He told me that he would no longer be able to be in the play, so I would have to recast his role. He went on to say that while I could go ahead and continue my rehearsal, the “powers that be” had decided no one would ever see us perform. End of story.

He seemed pretty sympathetic when he saw the dejected look on my face. He offered solace in the form of good grades–telling me that my work up to this point had earned me an “A” on this assignment.

“Big fucking deal,” is what I wanted to say. “This play is important. It’s crucial. It’s a really great opportunity to make an impact–to actually teach kids something that could save their lives,” is what I wanted to argue. And I really believed it. All the work I had done trying to sell the idea to our principal and superintendent had convinced one person (me) that performing this play was vital to our very survival.

Keep in mind this was the late 80s. AIDS was a very real threat, and yet most of my classmates felt immune–partly because we were seventeen and immune to everything, and party because (in rural Texas, at least) AIDS was still widely-believed to be a disease that only gay people could contract, like being a good dresser or listening to Erasure.

Coach said he’d work on changing the superintendent’s mind– at least to let us perform the play for the other students in Health class. Then he left me to deliver the bad news to the rest of the cast. After discussing the possibility that all our hard work would most likely be wasted on an audience of one, we decided to power through. Who knows what support we might find over the next couple of weeks? Maybe we could address the school board at its next meeting! Maybe a petition would change the superintendent’s mind! We had not at first succeeded, but we were damn sure going to try, try again!

About an hour later my Drama teacher arrived to crush whatever hopes remained. She told us that not only would we be performing the play to no one, but also that she and Coach had been “asked” to resign as our faculty advisors and remove themselves wholly from any further involvement. Without any faculty support, we’d no longer be able to use school facilities for rehearsal or anything else.

In short, it was all over. As a small consolation, she allowed us to have the rest of the evening to figure out how to proceed and left us to our own devices, alone at the school.

We were angry–really angry. We felt oppressed, misunderstood, belittled, and disregarded. We became even angrier at the thought of our cool, favorite teachers being threatened or bullied by the administration. We were sure that Coach and Miss Drama had fought for us–would fight for us–had they been able to do so without losing their jobs.

We talked about how important this play was–how much our school needed it. Our homecoming queen was married and several months pregnant, and she wasn’t alone. Girls got pregnant all the time. And one of the most popular guys on the football team had been accused of date rape by more than ten girls. How could they say we didn’t need to talk about sex in our school? How could they dismiss us out of hand like that?

We decided we had a pretty powerful story on our hands: Small Town School Takes Small-Minded Approach to Sex Ed. We decided to call the press.

I guess our thought was that after they saw it on the news, parents and other members of the community might support us in our cause. And if other adults brought enough attention to the matter, the superintendent would be forced to rethink his decision.

We also decided to stick together–no matter what. I would make the call, but we’d all be party to the decision. The blame would not fall on my shoulders alone, and we would not back down, no matter what the consequences. Our only hesitation was in creating trouble for our “cool” teachers who we believed had been on our side all along. We wanted to distance them–shield them from any of the repercussions.

So we did two things. First, we used a pay phone at the school to call the local TV news. I unloaded the whole story to an interested reporter.

Second, I went home and called our teachers. I told each of them that the cast and I had decided to take action, to fight for our right to sexually educate our peers. I wouldn’t give them any details, but assured them no laws would be broken. I felt that for their own protection they should know nothing more–it was important for them to have plausible deniability.

I don’t know exactly how long it took the “cool” teachers to sell us out, but I’m guessing it was a matter of minutes. They both called the principal at home to inform her that we had some devious tricks up our sleeves.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office just after the first bell. Coach and Miss Drama were waiting with her, and I spent the better part of first period being yelled at by the three of them.

They wanted to know what we had planned. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They threatened to suspend me, expel me. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

I tried to defend myself. They didn’t want to hear it.

They told me that my actions would likely result in getting good teachers fired–ruining their lives forever. I cried. I believed them. I felt guilty. But I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They finally dismissed me and I went back to class, teary-eyed, red-faced and already exhausted. Ten minutes later they called me back into the office and asked me why the Channel 12 news team was calling for an interview. What did they know? What had I told them? Was I an idiot or just determined to get everyone fired?

I was told to “call off the dogs” or face a stiff punishment–one that would make detention seem like Spring Break. My principal watched as I dialed the Channel 12 newsroom again. I was openly bawling at this point–I had become an emotional basket case, and the basket was full of guilt and humiliation. The reporter was unavailable because, as I found out later, she was waiting with a camera crew just outside school grounds to try to get this story. So, after some more yelling, I was sent back to class.

At lunch, the cast and I gathered in the auditorium. They had heard my name called over the loudspeaker all morning, and seen me walking around the halls like a crying zombie. Some of them were pissed at me for crying. They thought it was a sign of weakness–that I had buckled after promising we wouldn’t back down. Others defended me, saying that even though we were all supposed to stick together, I was the only one being screamed at in the principal’s office all morning.

That changed when Coach found us and marched us into a classroom. Miss Drama stood in the corner of the room as Coach sat us down and gave us the talking-to of our lives. He marched back and forth, yelling at the top of his lungs. His face turned red, then purple, then red again. He treated us as if we had set the school on fire. There was no sympathy for our cause. There was no “thanks for the heads up last night.” He just paraded around the room, screaming and calling our actions stupid and reckless and irresponsible and indefensible.

Man, I hope he never finds out about Columbine.

I stopped crying and I got angry again. But this time it was a quiet anger. A Clint Eastwood anger. You know? It’s a cold, detached anger, with a calmness that terrifies. It’s the anger that comes with understanding. I was finally realizing that the people in charge were not on our side, and never had been. The adults who we had been so concerned about and whose jobs we had been so prepared to fight for–had turned on us at the first sign of trouble. They had probably never been our advocates–never pushed back in any way for our benefit. They weren’t being bullied by the administration. They were the bullies. And Coach’s red-faced rage-filled ranting was proof.

It’s not like we got caught drinking or doing drugs or cheating or ditching class. It’s not like we had vandalized the school or started a food fight in the cafeteria. It’s not like we had allegedly date-raped more than ten teenage girls.

We just wanted to put on a play. We wanted to be heard. We wanted to make a positive impact on the people in our community.

I sat perfectly still, unmoved, until Coach finished his rant and dismissed us. And then I was called into the principal’s office one last time.

That’s when she informed me that the press is not allowed on public school grounds without permission. The Channel 12 news reporter I had called would not be allowed on campus. There would be no big story on the news that night.

We had failed.

But it felt more like she had failed me. The school had failed me. And the “cool” teachers had failed me most of all.

I put it all behind me when I graduated. I left town and never really looked back. There are certainly teachers from high school that I remember; ones I admired, who inspired me and pushed me to achieve. But the rest of them are just an unpleasant smudge on my permanent record.

This is a true story. Names and locations have been changed to protect the criminally parochial.

Day One

I was standing in the gym, minding my own business. Minding your own business is often the worst thing you can do, especially when you’re 15, too smart for your own good and surrounded by the lowest form of human life: the high school administrator. An unnerving presence burned into my back, the type of feeling that there’s no logical explanation for. The feeling you can’t describe without resorting to tautology. Being watched feels like being watched. I spun around to see one of my high school’s vice principals making an ugly face, probably the only kind she knew how to make. Her wrinkled face contorted into the shape of an old Yankee woman seeing something she doesn’t understand.

Tall Mac was driving, and that was the problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that if it had been Fat Mac instead, we would have been safe. Not that Fat Mac, eighteen as well and just as awash with testosterone as the rest of us, was any more immune to the lure of flooring the accelerator along Chandler Highway, or revving his engine at a stop light, just to hear it growl – far from it – but when it came to the road, Fat Mac had a natural affinity that none of us shared. Driving was something that lived in his bones. His nervous system came into focus at the turning of the ignition; he could no more come to harm behind the wheel than Mozart behind a piano.

“Time must have become a very odd kind of mirror-maze for her now; and mazes can change at any instant from being funny to being frightening.”–Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

“Pope Benjamin just announced ordaining women is like pedophilia. So that means he’s okay with it?” I consider then reject this as a possible ice-breaker at my Catholic high school’s 25-year reunion tonight. The event was announced months prior and I’ve received several Facebook reminders, but I only confirmed three days ago, after nudging from my mom and aunt, who pointed out I’ll enjoy seeing those I loved and in some cases still do, that my career is going well and that I’m frequently mistaken for being younger than I am. (It’s ridiculous to glorify youth but I’m not above being flattered when associated with it.) A kind pal, Marley, volunteered to drive and says we’ll bail after an hour if it’s lame. With good humor, I agreed to go. I’m touched they care whether I attend but mostly that they don’t see me as I’ve seen myself the past nine plus months: shrouded in grief, a facsimile of who I was before TJ undertook what would be his final climb the first week of October.

I overthought high school. During my senior prom, for instance, a whole host of gestures seemed to be called for and I performed only a portion of them.When my date and I hit a lull in conversation or a group dance number began, I waited for cues that never came as to how I should proceed.I excused myself for a drink I didn’t want.The trips to the punch bowl provided the illusion that I knew what I was doing to an audience I imagined might be watching my every move.

Then, fifteen years later, I stepped toward another table spread with a fresh confidence.I swaggered in my tux like I should have the first time.My elbows knew how far out to jut.I lifted one of the glasses from the white tablecloth.My new date smiled, on an unspoken toast.

I went to a high school that was pretty lax about class requirements. Students were strongly encouraged to take at least three years’ worth of every major subject: English, Social Studies, Math, Science. But the word “encouraged” is key.

My guidance counselor was just too sweet for her own good. Or I guess for my good, really, because once I realized that the requirements were flexible, it was goodbye to Math and Science. Anything with numbers or facts? Peace out, see ya later.

What I loved was English. I was always reading. You know that phrase people (it seems like only old ladies, actually) always say, like: “That Billy always has his nose in a book! Such a bookworm!” I was that bookworm. Literally, though; at almost all times, I walked around with my big nose in a little book. I would read on the bus, step down, and keep reading as I walked across the parking lot to class. I looked like Belle in The Beauty and the Beast, walking through the halls like I was strolling around Paris with a book in front of my face and a croissant in the other hand. If mentioning a non-Pixar animated movie is too archaic, by the way, and the reference has been lost on you, go to 1:45 in this vid. The chick ecstatically sliding across the bookshelf, that’s me.

I also loved languages. Beginning in seventh grade, we had to take a language and our choices were Latin, Spanish, or French. The hot girls took French, the apathetic masses took Spanish, and the parent-pleasing “intellectuals” took Latin. Which one do you think I chose?

After three years of Latin, I liked learning a language so much that I added Spanish, too. I dropped Math in order to do so. Then, junior year, I dropped Science, too, in order to double up in English. Our choices that year were Classical Lit—in which we read Homer, Aeschylus, and other dead Greeks, or AP (Advanced Placement) Lit, which involved Joyce, Dickens, Dostoevsky and blablabla, you know those dudes. The literary giants.

I couldn’t just choose one. I elected to take no Science, no Math, and to make up for the void by adding something called an “independent study.” For my independent study, I sat in a small storage closet with my favorite English teacher (poor, kind man) and we would discuss short stories from the 1800s.

So, to reiterate the list here: I was taking two sections of foreign languages, two sections of English, and a special private study of Hawthorne and Poe. I was a huge fucking nerd.

Senior year, I wanted to do it again—no Math or Science. But my guidance counselor insisted that colleges might not like the discrepancy, and that I should really choose at least a Science class. Of all things, we went with AP Biology, based on the logic that I had taken regular Bio freshman year and scraped by with a B, and hey, it was just memorization, after all. Kingdom, Phallus, Order, Genius, right? Lots of lists and stuff.

On the first day, the teacher announced to us, “This is AP-level Biology, I expect AP-level work and commitment.” Fuuuuck. Then she passed out a huge book and said we would cover a chapter a week and have a big multiple choice exam every Friday.

For the first test, I studied for a little while, memorized the bullshit, and felt pretty good after taking it. She handed them back Monday, and I got an 85. I was pretty happy with that. 85 was a B, and hey, if I could get a straight B in the class, that was okay.

I felt really good after taking the second test. I felt like I maybe even brought up my score from the first one, maybe got into the 90s range. But on Monday, she handed them back and I got a 74. “Hmm,” I thought, “That’s a bit of a drop. But it’s not so bad, and I’ll pull it up next time.”

For the third test, I studied harder than before. I made flashcards, and had my parents quiz me. I felt good. After actually taking the test, though, I didn’t feel so good. I just wasn’t gettin’ this science stuff! We got the test back Monday, and sure enough, I got a 65. Uh-oh. That’s like a D, right? I was upset, to say the least. I wanted to burn my Bio textbook. A year later, in college, I would get the chance to burn a book, but it would be Eccoci, my text from first-year Italian. As I held the flame to its angry pages, I closed my eyes and thought about AP Bio. Note: No books were harmed in the making of this TNB post (nor even in the photo below; after holding the lighter there long enough for a picture, I wussed out).

Meanwhile, we were nearing the deadline to drop a class. Soon, I’d be in too deep. But I also knew I couldn’t really drop the class, because I needed a science corurse.

So, for the fourth week’s test, I really kicked into high gear. I started studying a week in advance, read through each chapter twice, and tried to think of any surprise, trick questions. This time, I wasn’t fucking around.

At this point, you know where the story is headed, don’t you?

I took the test, and boy, it went great. I knew all of the questions with confidence, and walking out of class Friday, I thought that if anything, I had been overprepared!

After completing the test, I felt so good about it that after school that very afternoon, I actually went to the Science office to approach the teacher. I wanted to find out my grade, and I knew that even though we didn’t get tests returned until Monday, they were all graded with the Scantron machine (“Use #2 pencils only! Darken each rectangle fully! No errant pencil marks!”) and therefore took a teacher thirty seconds and zero effort to score each one. She had probably already graded them.

The teacher’s name was Miss Tyson. “Hi Miss Tyson!” I said when I walked into the Science office. “Hello, Daniel,” she said quietly. She looked grim.

Hey, so, I know we won’t get back them til Monday, but I thought maybe if you had already scored them, I could find out my grade from today’s test now? I just feel really good about it and wanted to see mine early!

She looked at me, and said, “Are… are you serious?”

“Yeah!” I said with genuine, doe-eyed enthusiasm.

She looked around the office at the other science teachers like she was embarrassed, and she said, “I’m going to write your score down for you on a piece of paper.”

“Gee golly, okay!” I said, excited to see my A+ grade.

Then she took a little corner of scrap paper and brought out her pen. I still remember it today; it was a purple Le Pen. Felt tip, gorgeous ink. A really nice pen! She wrote something on the scrap of paper and then slid it over to me with her hand covering it. Then she slowly lifted her hand.

On the piece of paper, she had written the number 47.

I gave her a puzzled look and asked, “Oh, was it graded out of 50 this time?”

“No, that’s your score out of a hundred,” she said.

I smiled, and thought for a second. I probably thought about what I would eat for my after-school snack. Then I looked up at her and said, “Okay, will you sign this drop sheet?”

Remember when we listened to punk rock, rolled the windows down and drove to the gas station with the blue roof because a guy there was known for selling cigarettes to kids like us and we figured this was a pretty good deal? When he stopped working there, we never even asked what happened. He was just gone and we found an unsupervised cigarette machine in a coffee shop to replace him. It was in full view of the public, cops sitting at the bar and all, but no one was going to turn around and ask you for ID if you had the balls to just walk up and buy a pack.

Remember how that trip to the gas station took forever, like what the hell could we be doing? Well, we had to stop at so-and-so’s house and pop in to say hi to her mom so we wouldn’t look suspicious like that one time she knew I was going to be getting a ring, and she asked why I wasn’t wearing it and I said, “I let him keep it because we were going to, um, I mean, it was too big and it has to be re-sized, and I didn’t want to lose it.” What I almost said was “We were going to get high, and I was afraid I’d lose it.” It was my first time, and I was sure I couldn’t be trusted. We ended up just sitting in that coffee shop all day, staring at our cups. I tried so many times to explain something, some insight offering itself from the folds of my slow motion rush, and I’d start but my mouth couldn’t keep up, and I’d flounder till finally I muttered, “Ah, fuckit.” And that became my signature phrase for the next year. This is the sound of me falling short.

Remember when we left school to go swimming in some lake somewhere? We dragged our legs, thick with drugs, through muddy water and contemplated whether we could swim to the other side. We got water in our mouths. It was the first time I heard the word brackish, and it was delightful the way you said it. Brackish. We swam in our clothes so we wouldn’t have to go naked, but then there we were hiding behind the car putting on god knows what, a t-shirt I guess, and a towel maybe, something from the trunk of this boy’s car. I told myself to remember the image of you with the sweet purple smoke swirling around your face, the light sifting in through the barn window as you sat back on this old couch and someone finally declared, “It’s burnt.” I told myself to remember how goddamned beautiful you were because it couldn’t have lasted forever, but I had this one taste of it, this one photo in my mind — you sealed in the amber of time.

Remember when I was laying on your bed in my panties, and you sang that stupid song about me being on your bed in my panties? I couldn’t figure out why it was such a big deal, and I just felt lucky that you weren’t laughing or anything, and I felt like a bit of an asshole for smoking your pot but I realize now that you got the better end of that deal since you kept the remainder of the bag, too.

Remember when my eyes felt like sugar water? And my teeth, sugar cubes? And my heart, sugar, too?

Remember when we went to the park and climbed on the jungle gym and hung upside down by our knees and wondered what THC stood for anyway? It sounded like a college, like some kind of private school, like The Hard College. We talked about how girls only wanted to date shitty guys, and how good guys always get stuck being just friends, and then one night you kissed me on the sidewalk. It was an ambush of teenage hormones and then there were the long rambling love letters written in pencil, and the phone calls where you told me about your dreams until it got to be too much and I knew you were making things up.

Remember when I believed there were things good girls didn’t do? Remember when I was in love with you and tried that weird role reversal of deer perusing the hunter? And remember when you finally took me up on it and I shrank back from your hands because no one told me that was part of the deal?  Remember when the best thing I could think of was you thinking of me? Remember when I would whisper your name until I fell asleep? Do you remember me?

The regular religion teacher at Santa Magdalena Sofía Barat high school was one of those middle-aged, middle-class, chain-smoking Italian men who thoroughly dominate the lower echelons of everyday life in Argentina. Father Cavallo, as everyone called him, was stout and ordinary looking, with sleeves perennially rolled up and a clerical collar that spent more time on his desk or coat hook than about his thick neck. In addition to teaching the religion and philosophy classes at Barat, he was some sort of administrator, so when he announced one morning midway through the first term that he would stop teaching religion, no one much wondered about it. Although he was nominally second in command to the perpetually tipsy Spanish headmaster, everyone understood that Father Cavallo ran the show. If he didn’t feel like teaching religion, who could tell him otherwise?

In any event, religion was low on the list of concerns for the second-year students at Barat. They were, almost without exception, a mediocre bunch, as befitted the mediocre surroundings. Barat was a squat cell block of a building, four inartfully constructed levels of plain, square classrooms huddled around a central courtyard of cracked cement and creeping weeds. It sat just outside the shabby commercial center of Castelar, which was not so much a suburb of Buenos Aires as a suburb of another suburb, the unfortunately named Morón. (Until I arrived from the United States on a year-long exchange program, no one at Barat had apparently met anyone with enough knowledge of English to tell them what “moron” means. It was probably not by accident that this bit of vocabulary never found its way into the English classes.)

It didn’t take me long to take up the nihilistic rituals of the place. For the first couple of months I was in Castelar, I was an exciting novelty: my tongue wrestled comically with the new language as my gangly, fifteen-year-old body struggled with a growth spurt that had taken me from 5’9″ to 6’4″ in less than a year, and I was full of surprising malapropisms and athletic feats. The boys brought me to parties and showed off the colorful swears they’d taught me to say, while the girls preened and flirted, my foreignness seeming to outshine my acne, my faint lisp lost under bad but charming Spanish. But after three months, I talked pretty much like everybody else, peppering my speech with the same curses my peers did and affecting without effort the Italianate gesticulations that make Argentinians an easy target for parody among Latin Americans. And so I regressed from a shining moment of exceptionalism to my own mediocre mean, and fell in easily with the boys in my class.

We passed our weekdays with desultory school attendance in the mornings, desultory work in the afternoons, and aimless wandering, drinking, and fighting in the evenings. On weekends, the boys in my group, all 15 or 16, would gather downtown near the train station, ponder making the 45-minute trip to Buenos Aires for some real action, then determine that at least one of us didn’t have train fare, or that all of us had train fare but not enough money to do anything once we got into the city. With luck, someone would know of a party nearby, or we’d retreat to one of the dingy local bodegas and pool our funds for a few bottles of cheap wine or Quilmes. When we’d drunk enough, we’d go sit outside on the benches near Castelar’s main nightclub and watch the parade of dolled up local girls and too-cool local toughs. Mart ín had developed the custom of standing and applauding in a serious way when an especially good-looking girl walked by, which never ceased to amuse us. Sometimes, as the night wore on, there would be races on the main strip involving unlikely cars like Fiats or Citroens, or wheelie contests pitting mopeds against bicycles. We cheered lustily for these events.

Some Fridays, one or another of the regulars wouldn’t appear by the station, and we’d wait around a while, angrily cursing him for keeping us from whatever fun we hoped to have that evening. Eventually we’d abandon the straggler and do the same routine as always, all of us knowing without saying anything that when we saw him on Monday, we’d craft a fantastic tale of the nocturnal exploits he missed – running from cops, scaling balconies to crash all-girl parties, and other activities at the very edge of plausibility.

The most creative teller of these tales, and the only one of our group who would create his own tall tales when he was the one who didn’t show up, was Marcelo. At Monday recess, he would take the lead, painting a picture of the western suburbs that bore little resemblance to our prosaic reality. He would start off our imagined evenings with trips to neighboring towns, usually by unlikely means like stolen scooters or in the back of a milk truck, then take us through strip joints, private social clubs, and back alleys such as none of us had ever encountered in Castelar. He was fluid with details, utterly convincing, and had a flawless sense of comic timing. In different circumstances he might have made a brilliant novelist or stand-up comic, but I think he ended up taking over his dad’s bicycle repair stand. Still, he was a genius and quick with words, so it was not surprising that he struck the blow that brought about the ruination of our new religion teacher.

The new religion teacher was, like Father Cavallo, a priest, but different in all other respects. Father Moretti was young, probably in his late twenties, and had the large, vulnerable eyes of a frightened animal. In contrast to Father Cavallo, who treated the priesthood as simply a job he’d stumbled into and kept, no different than working in a canning factory or driving a bus, Moretti clearly felt that he had found a calling. While the pedagogy at Barat was strictly old-school, with rote memorization reigning supreme, Moretti was always trying to engage with us as equals, pushing us to ask questions, to reason and explore. He was the sort of teacher I’d want my sons to have now, but back then, we saw him as nothing more than prey: He was too young, too eager, and too inexperienced to pose a real disciplinary threat, and worst of all (for him), he plainly wanted us to like him. Behind his back, we called him “el curita” – the little priest.

Religion class had been light on metaphysical questions and heavy on a lecture plan only the Pope could love. Under the guise of scholarly inquiry into the religions of the world, each unit would give a few, basic facts about a different faith, then gently remind us how backward it was compared to Catholicism. Father Cavallo had never brought any zeal to this business, but he seemed to believe it without need for reflection. “These Hindus,” he would say, pity and disinterest mixing in his voice, “believe in multiple gods,” and he would place just enough emphasis on the word “multiple” to let us know that only a fool would think such a thing.

The little priest could scarcely hide his contempt for this approach. It was evident that he thought questions of personal faith too weighty for the same soulless approach that helped us learn (and promptly forget) the names of the bones in the body or the provinces and their capitals. Where every other teacher at Barat presented facts in long, indigestible monologues, speaking at a pace that made it clear we were meant to copy down every word, the little priest was frenetic, scattershot. He roamed erratically around the classroom, musing wildly with his back turned to us, then wheeled suddenly to meet the eyes of one or another unlucky student and demand, “Why?”

After our initial surprise, we began to warm to his approach. We had not been in the custom of answering unexpected queries from teachers, and at first we were struck dumb. When Florencia, the class overachiever, was presented with the little priest’s first urgent “why?”, she waited a long moment before asking, “Do you want me to answer you, sir?”

“If you want to,” said the little priest, trying to soften his tone.

Florencia pondered a minute more, then finally decided: “No. I don’t want to.”

He turned quickly to Diego, the class clown, who just a day earlier had roused us from our usual torpor with a tremendous trifecta of insouciance: He had addressed our English teacher in Spanish, by her first name, and in the informal tense. “What do you think, Diego?” asked the little priest earnestly.

Diego’s answer, “How the hell should I know?”, was not just his usual aimless rebellion. It was a test, because that’s what Diego did. He projected a facade of unhinged craziness – sometimes, he would turn back to me in the middle of class and say one of the few phrases he knew in English, something learned from a heavy metal song, I think: “Hey, motherfucker! Get the fuck out!” But he was not stupid, and had a knack for sizing people up. So we all looked to see how the little priest would respond. He seemed to understand he was being tested, and paused a moment, drawing out our uncertainty for Diego’s fate and what it would mean about our teacher and the class.

“Good answer,” he said softly. “There’s no reason you should know – no reason any of us should know anything.” He went on about knowledge and the mystery of faith, but it was clear he had passed the test. Diego looked back at me and grinned, but I couldn’t tell if he was congratulating himself for carrying off the day’s impertinence without incident or whether he was actually admitting that he was coming to like this new teacher.

The boys in my class warmed to the little priest, but slowly. There was a long while where each of us knew we liked him, but none would admit it aloud. But he became a less and less frequent object of our casual, after-hours derision, unable to supplant villains of longstanding like the acerbic, booze-soaked headmaster, the accounting teacher with her dinner-plate face, the reed thin police lieutenant with his reputation for cruelty and the rumors that he had been a torturer under the military regime just ten years gone.

Once, on a Saturday afternoon, when a few of us had managed to raise the money to head into Buenos Aires, planning to visit a guitar shop and then get some drinks, we ran into the little priest on the train. He was sitting upright and patient like a well-mannered child, eyes bright, priestly collar and neat slacks under a dark blue workman’s jacket. There was an old camera hanging from his neck.

“What’s with the camera, Moretti?” we asked him jovially.

“I like to take pictures,” he said simply, “Pictures of people.” This was the sort of earnest statement that we would usually subject to a fair bit of mockery, but coming from the little priest it was disarming. We paused, looking at each other.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, cool,” said Santiago. “You should bring some of your pictures to class.”

We all agreed, offering improvised suggestions for how pictures of people might fit into the materials we were studying, although none of us had more than a passing acquaintance with those materials. He said he would see if he had any decent prints around the house, then asked us where we were headed, who of us played guitar, whether we would make other stops in Buenos Aires. He got off at Talleres and I remember watching him through the train window, hoping I’d see him take a picture of someone, but he just walked purposefully toward the end of the platform, one hand in his pocket, one hand resting lightly on the camera around his neck.

That Monday he brought an envelope of black and white prints to class and passed them around, explaining the request a few of us had made on the train. There were a lot of prints, enough for the class to spend some time on, and the deliberation and study we gave each one was unusual for us. They were all simple portraits – children, old people, bus drivers, the vendedores ambulantes who worked their way along sidewalks and trains, hawking newspapers, candy, matchbox cars with sing song sales pitches. The subjects looked straight into the camera, sometimes smiling or laughing, but mostly serious. Some of them looked like the sort of rough characters I might not want to photograph without asking, and some were attractive young women, whom I would have felt equally uncomfortable approaching on the street. It was not hard to imagine Father Moretti doing it though.

Moretti didn’t speak for a long while, but he looked at us in a particular way – not quite plaintively, but with a mixture of forced confidence and creeping vulnerability, the look you give someone when you think she might want to kiss you, but you’re not quite certain enough to move in close and let your eyes go out of focus. Diego was the first to speak, and he said just one word: “Alucinantes.” Literally, it means “hallucinatory,” but we used it to describe something so great as to be eye-opening.

“Really?” asked Moretti. His guard was completely down. It would not surprise me if no student in the history of Barat had ever seen a teacher so emotionally unguarded – even the senior girls of years past who were rumored to have slept with our math teacher.

And we didn’t let him down. “Really!” said mousy Rosi, emerging from her perennial doodling in the back corner of the room. “These are photos are very -” she paused for a moment, “very truthful.” Others chimed in, all honest praise, and then the bell rang and we shuffled off, leaving Moretti glowing.

From then on, Moretti’s class was a little refuge for us, wedged between Señora Pennovi’s brutalist approach to English and Fabián’s amusing but slightly unsettling, pretty-girl-centered take on Algebra. We talked a little about religion but a lot more about morality, crime, and sin. Florencia admitted stealing money from her dad’s wallet, to everyone’s shock. Luciano actually asked the whole class to stop calling him “Pomelo” (Grapefruit), committing one of the greatest sins against adolescent Argentinian pride by revealing that the nickname hurt his feelings. Such was the hold that Moretti had on our thinking that we actually respected Luciano’s request for nearly a week (but his head did look like a grapefruit – it was undeniable).

Toward the end of the school year, the boys started to wonder and discuss whether Moretti was a virgin, virginity being the affliction foremost on our minds those days. This was something we couldn’t ask directly, of course, but one day maybe a week or two before the end of the term, Diego made a good opening salvo: “¿Y vos, Moretti?” – “And you?” he started, using the informal tense as always. “Have you always been a priest? How’d you get into this business?”

“You really want to know?” Moretti asked, eyes shining, and we nodded and leaned forward eagerly. It was hard to tell whether he was just reveling selfishly in our attention, or excited at the possibility of imparting some valuable lesson.  Either way, he took advantage of the spell he had cast, speaking deliberately:

“When I was nineteen, I was living a very different life. I had a job at the airport, money to spend, and no responsibility. I was going out every night, you know, drinking, using cocaine, always with different women -“

“I told you so!” cried Diego. “I knew he wasn’t a virgin!”

Everyone turned, jolted by the interruption, and Diego actually looked embarrassed for the first time in his life. Moretti said nothing, and waited. We turned back to him, and he went on:

“I won’t lie to you. It was a fun life at first.” The story was predictable but well told. His cocaine use started to get out of hand. He got a girl pregnant and she left Buenos Aires to live with family in a distant province. He started doing heroin, then lost his job. We all knew he was heading toward a road-to-Damascus moment – he was a religion teacher at a Catholic school, after all – but we were still dying to know the details (the salacious particulars of decadence are what make redemption stories so engaging, after all). He worked the build-up pretty hard, and I don’t remember all the details, but I can’t forget what it boiled down to: Moretti was coming down from a high, waiting on a train platform alone on a cold night. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him, but before he could turn around, he felt something hard poking into his back. A man said, “Don’t move or I’ll burn you.”

Of course, we all knew what “burn” meant in that context – even I, the foreigner, was by then well enough acquainted with street slang – and like all adolescents, we prided ourselves on being conversant with the trappings of criminality. Nevertheless, Moretti wanted us to feel the mortal desperation of that moment, like Saul on his back with his maddened horse rearing above him. He said, “So right then, I knew he had a gun.”

And just then, while the rest of the class tried to imagine confronting death alone, shuddering with cold and withdrawal, Marcelo said, “Or a match.”

Diego snorted. Florencia stifled a giggle. And suddenly, we were all laughing. A lot. It wasn’t the funniest thing I ever heard in my life, but something about the way Marcelo said it, sort of earnest as though he weren’t making a joke so much as suggesting the real possibility that this faceless bandit might have been threatening Moretti with matches, seemed absolutely uproarious at the time.

Moretti tried to pick up the thread, and he went on for another minute about how he’d asked God for help or something, but the mood was broken. Someone else posited that the bandit planned to rub two sticks together to make a fire, we started to riff on that (“maybe he had a stove!”). Soon the bell rang and we went on our way, leaving Moretti crestfallen in his chair.

And then he was gone. Cavallo came back and finished off religion class for the year, marveling at how little progress we seemed to have made. There was never any explanation, and there was no one at the school we would have felt comfortable asking, except Moretti himself. No one saw him in the building or around town.

We didn’t talk about it at the time, of course – vacation was close at hand, and the vigorous indolence of summer was too alluring to leave room for charitable thoughts. But when I recall his face as we bounced out of the room that day, I know we broke him: eyes fixed somewhere between his desk and the first row of chairs, out of focus and absolutely still; shoulders slack, like he’d just put down a heavy box. He was shocked, and his faith was shaken. He threw himself under the hooves of our adolescent cruelty, expecting passion and piety to turn us back. Instead, we trampled him.

A while back I drove to Texas and attended a high school reunion. Events like these are surreal for most everyone, but as I approached Wichita Falls on a cold and still Friday evening, the intensity of it all was overwhelming—the color of the sky, the emptiness of the prairie, the quiet roar of my tires on interstate asphalt. I felt like I was driving into someone else’s dream. I’d lived in this area for less than three years, and many more years had passed since I’d had contact with anyone I had known there. Hell, I didn’t even graduate high school in Wichita Falls because my family moved to Corpus Christi the summer before my senior year. The only way I’d known about the reunion at all is because I saw something about it on MySpace, and I wasn’t sure I should go since I wasn’t on the alumni list.

But I wanted to go. For a bit of nostalgia, sure, but also because I wondered if anyone would remember me. My family moved seven times before I left for college, and I hadn’t kept in contact with any of my childhood friends. Because of this I had romanticized these short-term friendships, imagined they were more meaningful than they probably were, and I assumed I was missing out on some essential quality of childhood that less-nomadic kids took for granted. I felt impermanent; if no one from those years remembered me, had I actually lived them? Were the memories real? Did the past exist anywhere else besides my own mind?

And of course there was a girl. There’s always a girl.

* * *

Relationships are mostly about geography.

Your childhood friends are the other kids who live on your block. Or you meet them in homeroom, or they play on your little league baseball team. You don’t choose these friends so much as you happen across them. Often you barely have anything in common at all.

As you get older, the schools get bigger, and it’s easier to meet people like yourself. In college you enroll in certain classes, you join certain clubs, you’re invited to certain parties. You aggregate and congregate and build relationships based on shared interests and attitudes instead of coincidence.

But in adulthood your world social world tends to shrink again. You work in this office and live in that apartment building. You pick up friends here and there, at work or at church or on your flag football team, and maybe you don’t realize the best friend you never had lives three blocks away. You both shop at the same grocery store and play the same golf course, but for nothing more than probability, you’ll never meet.

Now think about your very best friends—the few who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you practically share a brain with—and consider the astronomical odds you overcame to even meet them in the first place.

* * *

I wasn’t driving to Wichita Falls completely blind. I’d chatted on Facebook and MySpace with a few people who planned to be there. At the first event, a Friday night football game, the organizer of the reunion recognized me. I hadn’t known her in school, but that evening she smiled at me and made me feel welcome.

Inside the stadium, the night was bright and cold. Fans, thousands of them, were huddled under red and black blankets. I was expecting some kind of fanfare, a whole section of cheering alumni impossible to miss, but it turned out there was only a handful of us. Eventually I found another familiar face, an online friend, and sat next to him. I had known of him in school, but only vaguely. I’m not sure he remembered me.

Only a fraction of the graduating class made it to the game. The girl wasn’t one of them. And if she had been there, I probably wouldn’t have spoken to her. Not only because it was cold and everyone was rooted to their seats, but because I was mortified she wouldn’t remember me. She had been one of the most popular girls in school, and certainly among the most beautiful. I was awkward and painfully shy, my face burned with acne, a kid who appeared in the middle of ninth grade and disappeared before graduation. I knew her peripherally for a couple of years, and then, during my last semester before moving away, we sat next to each other in English class. She was the only pretty girl I’d ever found the courage to speak to, and every day I made her laugh. In my yearbook she wrote how nice it was to finally to get to know me, and thanked me for being so sweet to her. I allowed myself to believe, had I found the courage to ask her out, that she would have said yes.

* * *

Social networking sites recognize the problem of geography. Not only can you meet people of like interests, but you find them all over the world. The larger population makes it more likely you might meet a best friend or even a soul mate…at least in theory. The reality is a bit different because online personas don’t always match up with their real world counterparts. Often the qualities you imagined made the two of you so perfect for each other turn out to not really exist, or at least not the way you hoped. And since attraction is fickle, your online friend might be no more of a match than someone you stumbled across by chance in the real world.

And so we’re back to that random encounter, the probability-defying instance where you meet a person that, friend or lover, is the missing piece of the puzzle that is you. It’s not difficult to recognize a person like this. All it takes is a single conversation. And it’s the same where romance is concerned. Love isn’t a look across a room. Lust is a component of love, yes, but if that’s all you’re working with, you’re missing the real magic.

Because of the sheer math involved, we don’t meet these puzzle pieces often. You never know how or when it might happen. And when it comes to love, we often aren’t willing to wait. Circumstances trick us into assigning greater meaning to most of our romantic relationships than what is really there. This may be why friendships often last a lifetime, but marriages don’t fare as well. There isn’t as much pressure to force friendship as there is love. Your biological clock doesn’t care much about your friends. It wants you to find a mate, and the sooner the better.

* * *

I was only sixteen years old when I sat next to the girl in English class, but if she had wanted to get married I probably would have asked her. I couldn’t imagine being drawn to a person more than I was to her. But of course I was too young to understand that a pretty face and a kind smile don’t equal a match. In fact, it was a long, long time before I finally figured this out.

The day after the football game, Saturday, lunch was held in the high school cafeteria. Many more alumni showed up, and I saw plenty of recognizable faces. A guy I played basketball with. A guy who had lived in my neighborhood. Both of these men recognized me, and though they seemed more surprised than pleased to see me, I was nevertheless relieved. Their acknowledgment meant I really had gone to school with these people, that my memories weren’t built from illusion after all. The long hallways and institutional staircases and antiseptic smells were all familiar. These people and this place were my past, and they were real.

And then I saw her. Actually I first noticed her voice. The tone was a little deeper than I remembered, but unmistakable nonetheless. After a moment I made eye contact with her, and I thought her gaze lingered a bit, but maybe I only imagined it. She was as popular as ever. It seemed as though people were lining up to talk to her. I assumed at some point she might be left alone, a tiny window where I could approach her, but it never happened. She was in constant conversation the entire lunch, and even during the mingling period that followed.

One thing I should make clear: I wasn’t there to meet this girl in a romantic way. Far from it. But I couldn’t imagine leaving the reunion without speaking to her, not before I could compare my memories of her to the reality of the woman she had become. As the afternoon wore on, however, doing so became less and less likely. She was never alone, not even for a moment. What could I do? Walk up while she was talking to someone else and wait for them to stop? The past pulled on me like gravity, weighing me down, rooting me to where I stood. Not once during my nearly three years in this school had I asked any girl on a date.

I thought about giving up, walking away, but instead I summoned all the confidence I could muster and approached her. She glanced at me and then continued her conversation with this other person. Seconds ticked by, maybe minutes, and my skin began to crawl. Had I made a mistake? Did she recognize me at all?

Finally, she was free. She smiled the same smile I remembered and extended her hand. I shook with her and introduced myself, watching for recognition to flicker in her eyes the way it had with the other friends I had discovered here.

But no recognition appeared. She didn’t remember me. She even apologized for not remembering.

We talked for a while afterward, close to a half hour, about various political and cultural topics. It was a fine conversation, but we didn’t share similar views on very many things. Eventually we climbed into our cars and drove our separate ways, and that night, when dinner and drinks were served, when tables were cleared to make room for a dance floor, I made no effort to speak to her again.

* * *

I’m not sure I learned anything intellectually by attending the reunion, because what occurred there is pretty much what I expected. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s one thing to tell yourself how you should feel about a situation, but something else altogether to live it.

Because while it’s true that reality for each of us exists only in our own minds, the magic of being human are the odd and daily experiences you share with someone else.

Not the dumbest thing I’ve ever thought, however. That particular honour belongs to a moment in San Francisco – I was walking down Castro, I glanced across the street, and I saw a burger joint called Sliders. I read the name, emblazoned on a huge, purple sign in the window, and I thought Huh. I wonder if that’s a whole place themed after that Jerry O’Connell show from the mid-90s?

Instantly, I thought There it is, Simon. Right there. The single stupidest thing you will ever think in your entire life.

No, no. The dumbest words to ever come out of my mouth came courtesy of my seventeen year old self, a teenager who, it’s true, said some fairly stupid things as a matter of course. Even then, the bar was high. With maturity, my ability to release unrepentant barrages of idiocy into the world, like flooding rivers bursting their banks and swamping unsuspecting social gatherings with shocked silence, has developed, grown more skilled, become perfect with practice. But that particular evening… well, I was just in the zone.

The girl in question was French, a foreign exchange student who was spending a few months in Australia. I’d seen her at Mario’s, a café my friends and I have been frequenting for a little over a decade now (it’s at 666 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. The coffee is excellent, both in blend and in brewing. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop in and ask for Richard. Then tell him he has a stupid face, he’s been holding me back for years, and some day, after I have ridden his coat-tails to victory, I mean to put him in the ground). I was in Year 11, with a bit part in a school play¹. Rehearsals were set some time after school had finished, so the actors² would head to Mario’s after the last bell had rung, to wait until it was time to go back to school and block our positions, recite our lines, and talk about how, someday, Ben was going to make it as an actor.

I caught a glance of her one night across the café and even before I’d heard her accent and fallen just as hard as every other man who hears a woman speak French for the first time, I was wondering who she was. She looked like Milla Jovovich from The Fifth Element, all easy grace and self-possession, the only real difference being that her hair was dark brown rather than bright orange. We smiled at each other as I walked past her table to the counter to order, and exchanged another look, later, as she was leaving, that held for just a second too long.

The following night, when I came in, alone and with a freshly-shaved head, she saw me and laughed. She made a loud electric sound, audible throughout the room: ‘Bzzzzz!’ and mimed shearing all of her hair off. It was instantly disarming, if only because she was foreign; I couldn’t imagine an Australian girl either being so bold as to do such a thing, or having the savoir-faire to pull it off without looking foolish.

From there, she gathered her things and stood. Smiling, she came over and seated herself at my table.

‘In France,’ she explained, ‘if we saw someone at a cafe and smiled, we’d just sit down to say hi. Australians… you’re too uptight.’

Her name was Laura, and she came from Paris. She was over in Australia on exchange, living with a local host family and studying at a school near mine. When her friends, also French, came in, she introduced me. When mine arrived, I did the same. We sat in a circle of company and conversation, of coffee and cigarette smoke, and, as it does when you are young, time drew long; expanding without notice across the borders of minutes and hours.

Simply, easily, afternoon meetings became a regular thing between the two of us. I’d walk in to find her waiting, alone. We’d talk, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. We flirted, a little – being French, she ran conversational rings around me. She was something far beyond my experience; stylish and sophisticated even in a flat school dress of white and lime green checks, while I felt clumsy in my words, and always rushing, on the verge of stumbling, to be even one step behind.

‘Do you know any French?’ she asked one night.

I’d studied French, half-heartedly, for three years, but somehow asking where I could buy a loaf of bread and enquiring about the health of the rabbit of her aunt didn’t seem to be what the moment wanted.

‘Voulez-vouz couchez avec-moi?’ I said, grinning to show that I – of course – didn’t mean it as it sounded. I – of course – would never be so crass. And yet – of course – I did, and I was. The joke was a proposition, cloaked in the deniability of humour, and my every sense was set to gauge her reaction.

‘Ha ha,’ she said, and looked me in the eye.

‘When?’

And then she laughed too, like a tense moment breaking, and deliberately took another cigarette from her pack on the table. She put it to her lips, leaned close and waited for me to light it for her, and I was left to wonder if now she was the one joking, or if my fool-proof plan had just backfired.

She told me she had a formal in a few weeks (equivalent to a prom, Americans), and she’d love to go with me, but she’d already agreed to take her host family’s brother, and she couldn’t back out. I, of course, swallowed my disappointment and lied that I understood.

We talked about sex, we talked about France. We talked about the sex she’d had in France. She quizzed me about what my favourite things to do in bed were.

To this day, I feel reasonably justified in thinking there was something going on.

And then one evening, in that quiet time between afternoon and twilight, as we waited for her Parisian friend to arrive for a rare pre-arranged coffee, she turned to me and said ‘Ey, look… what are your feelings for me?’

‘Huh?’ I asked, blinking and blindsided by the raw honesty of the question after so much time skirting the issue of how much time we were spending together.

‘Because, you know… I ‘ave a boyfriend in France. And I really love ‘im.’

‘Oh!’ I said. ‘Yeah. Of course. No, no, we’re friends. I mean, I think you’re cool, and all. But yeah. Friends.’

And in the depths of my brain, something took a deep breath and screamed ‘FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-‘

Laura’s friend turned up, annoyed at some problem with her host family. She didn’t order, just sat and smoked, tensely, ripping one cigarette after another from the pack on the table and lighting up, wrapping herself in circles of smoke like armour against further irritations.

It was obvious things had become awkward with the introduction of this third party, so Laura and I said we’d walk the other girl home and call it a night. The two of them chattered back and forth in French as we walked the ten minutes back from the cafe, and at one point the other girl stopped and took a sidelong glance at me before turning to Laura and saying something that sounded vaguely hostile, and at the same time, vaguely concerned.

We walked the friend to her door and started the short journey back to the cafe and the train station. Both of us were quiet, lost in our own thoughts. I was trying to think of a loophole to salvation – surely there was some sentence, some perfect combination of words I could put together that would make her say ‘Boyfriend? Oh, you misunderstood! I said pet turtle. Yeah, you and me should totally have sex. Wild, French sex.’

Dusk was falling, and with it, a light rain. The breeze picked up, and above us, tree branches moved gently. Streetlights were flickering on, and it was a perfect romantic moment; one of the few I feel everyone is owed throughout the course of their life. Laura stopped walking, put her hand on my arm to catch my step, and faced me.

‘OK,’ she said. ‘Tell me. ‘Ow do you feel?’

At this point, it was like God himself reached down from the sky, flipped open the back of my skull, and poured ten quarts of distilled stupid straight into my medulla oblongata.

‘I’m kinda cold, actually,’ I said.

‘Oh…’ she said. ‘And… zat is all?’

‘Uh huh,’ I said. ‘Yup.’

And I walked her to the train station, and away.


¹ and it was far, far more than I deserved

² I use this term loosely

I lost my virginity thanks to a Youth Group outing and a group of impossibly large men.

OK, OK – not my real virginity. Being the good little Evangelical girl I was, I was saving that for my wedding night. But my spiritual virginity was as good as gone. Vamoose. Sold down the river to some guy named Jed. Or, more accurately, Scott.

We hadn’t exactly planned it. There was no flag raised in the days leading up to the earth-shattering event that read: THE END IS NEAR! How it managed to sneak up like that when we were trying to be so spiritual is beyond my comprehension. Sure, we’d snuck off to the back stairway a few times to make out. We were 14. We could hardly be blamed for a little hormonal playtime. But we had always had our boundaries. In the final analysis, I simply refuse to acknowledge that this tear in my spiritual hymen was entirely our fault.

That fateful weekend, we boarded the Youth Group bus along with 30 or so other hormonal teens for a field trip. The bus, whose name was “Gus” for God’s Ultimate Servant, had been our project the previous year. We’d had a pancake supper to raise enough funds to buy it secondhand, with the intention of being able to bus kids to church on Sunday who didn’t have rides. We even spent one whole Saturday throwing day-glo paint at it in an attempt to make it the coolest vehicle for Christ in all of Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, there were only one or two kids who actually needed a ride and there seemed to be a bit of a debate as to whether they were coming with their parents’ permission or not. When the church board expressed concern about a potential lawsuit, its Sunday morning glory ride was retired soon after. But when it was field trip time, it was Gus’s time to shine.

This wasn’t just any field trip, mind you. We, along with half the city it seemed, were headed to the city arena where we would watch gape-jawed as muscle-encased men bent rebar with their teeth and broke blocks of fiery ice with their foreheads.

That’s right, John Jacobs and the Power Team had come to our town. Boy, was our Youth Pastor jazzed. He had even worn his muscle shirt which read “Jesus!” across the front, where the middle “s” was in the shape of a lightning bolt. Beaming Scott and I herded in with the crowd to take our seats in one of the balconies.

Over the course of the next two hours, we were awed by these modern-day Sampsons. There must have been at least seven of them. Huge, hulking men with a clear message for Christ in between acts of wonder – changing the world, one head-bashed brick at a time. One of them would stand before us as John Jacobs narrated for us something along these lines.

“See this man? His name is Bo.”

A giant of a male specimen would stand before us, his muscles quivering in the spotlights like a Clydesdale’s.

“He gave his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ eight years ago. Bo is no pansy, folks, he stands 6’5” and weighs in at 322 pounds. Don’t be fooled by his massive exterior ladies, he’s a got a teddy bear heart.”

The women in the audience raised up a collective giggle. I felt on top of the world and even allowed myself to wonder whether he would find me attractive if we were stuck in an elevator together.

“Now you’ve already seen him crush through a wall of ice 8 feet thick tonight. But that ain’t nothin’.The thing about Bo is – the crazy thing about Bo is – he’s got a set of lungs like you wouldn’t believe.Now he’s gonna take this water bottle…” We all watch in rapt attention as he dangles an ordinary hot water bottle before us, “…he’s gonna take this hot water bottle and he’s gonna blow it up until it pops like a toy balloon.”

Shocked that a mere mortal can accomplish such an act, we burst into applause. I am feeling faint. I looked over at Scott, who is glowing at me.

“Now this ain’t no toy. Heh heh. Just so you know that we’re not playing any tricks on you tonight, I’ve invited an expert in the field to determine whether this is, in fact, a genuine hot water bottle.Grandma, can you come up here for a moment?”

We cheer as a frail looking woman approaches the stage. We are reverently amused at the contrast between grandmother and grandson. She speaks something crackly into the mike and we raise a mighty cheer. Bo stands before us now and puts his lips to the bottle. Guitars scream over the speaker system and a beat thumps through our skeletons.

“Now ladies and gentlemen,” John tells us over the music as Bo begins to blow. “This is something Bo has done over 1,000 times. If he fails, a rush of air so strong will force its way back into his lungs, causing them to burst. Just because he’s done it before, does not ensure his success. Do not attempt this at home. Just one mistake, ladies and gentlemen. Just one mistake…”

The suspense builds as Bo blows into the hot water bottle. He hesitates a little and I hear our Youth Pastor James behind us begging, “Please Jesus.” Bo seems to get over his hump and deposits another lungful of air into the hot water bottle, now as big as a soccer ball. He’s on a roll now. It’s as big as a five gallon cooler. He huff huff huffs into the bottle until – POW! It explodes like a flimsy balloon! Oh!If only my grandma could see what they had done to her beloved hot water bottle, it would blow her mind! How great the strength of Jesus is! Scott grabs me around the shoulder and pulls me in for a victory squeeze. Oh yes! How great He is indeed!

Bo who can blow diminishes during the applause to the back of the line-up just as another hulk of a man jogs up to the front. He has a phone book in his hands. Effortlessly, he R-R-RIPS it in two! The crowd goes crazy. But they are just warming up. We have yet to witness John Jacobs, himself, snap the chains between not one, but TWO sets of handcuffs from his wrists. The music is cut off so that we can hear the sound of the chains as they tear. People around me cry out, “Jesus!” just before he does it. We hear the mighty snap. HE DOES IT! It’s a MIRACLE! How we praise Jesus for breaking the chains that bound us after that! The crowd goes NUTS! I’m crying. Scott is screaming. People have their hands in the air to thank the Father above for these men who remind us of only a fraction of His power.

An altar call is initiated. The Power Team boasts that 2-3 out of every 10 people who show up to their performances give their lives to Christ – and I can see from my place in the balcony that it’s at least that many. People are pouring down the aisles to give their lives to Christ – and perhaps to also touch the members of the Power Team. John Jacobs is there to lay his hands on foreheads and slap high fives. And it really is that amazing. People are changed. Some people are healed. Many are saved.

In the years since my attendance at the city arena that night in Colorado Springs, I have lived in several different places. Currently, I live in Boulder, Colorado – which everybody knows is 25 square miles surrounded by reality – and I’m not so sure that the Power Team would go over so well with this crowd. The people here are entirely too, I don’t know – metero, or something. The idea of testosterone-dripping, red meat-eating men (and now one woman) might be seen as an affront to our patchouli-scented little utopia here. Well, they might dig the chick – but that’s not the point. I imagine that if a group like John Jacobs and the Power Team wanted to come to Boulder, it would have to switch up its gig. Perform amazing feats of yoga, or something like that. Francis Lee Mao-Mao and the Amazing Bendable Team. Their tag-line could be something like, “Changing the world one asana at a time,” or “Bending over to win you to Christ.” Whatever the case, if it wanted any success at all, it would have to adapt.

But we had seen just what we needed to see that night. Jesus truly wasn’t for sissies. He was strong.Indisputable. In control. Virile…

Back on the bus after a two-hour long adrenaline rush, we were exhausted. My friend Gina and her boyfriend Todd sat opposite us in the back seat of the bus, laughing privately about some inside joke.Some of the kids, still jazzed by the evening’s performance, were loud at first, but quickly settled in to a pattern of silence. Some even fell asleep. I fell into Scott’s arms.

It was just a lot of kissing at first, I swear. We had been through a lot together that evening and we just felt so…close. So ooey-gooey, ishy-squishy close. At first, when he began touching me under my shirt, I was alarmed. But he just said, “Shhh, I think God has given us to each other.” Well, that just about made my heart go crazy with desire. To think that God had preordained us to be together!

I did peek over at Gina and Todd once or twice, but they were too distracted to notice what was going down in the seat next to them. Finally, I just settled in to the ecstasy of it all.

Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier in this chapter that nothing happened, and in Clinton-speak, nothing did. I absolutely, verifiably, most emphatically did not lose my “technical virginity” that night.But I’d read enough in the days leading up to that to know that there is a thing called “spiritual virginity” in the Evangelical world that sounded just as ominous if not more so. When a girl loses her “technical virginity,” for example, it is impossible to get it back. It is possible, however, through the grace of Jesus to regain one’s “spiritual virginity” – even if one’s “technical virginity” has been lost.

Well, my friends, I stand before you today to tell you that I did not lose my “technical virginity” that fateful night on Gus the Bus. But what I did lose was perhaps something far more valuable, because it involved the way I thought about the world and the way I fit into it. Because I learned something about myself that night. And that one thing is this: Bo’s not the only one who can blow.

*Excerpt taken from “In Handbasket: Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical.”