From Something Wrong with Her: A Hybrid Memoir
Yes, I was one, all through college. A virgin in too many ways. A virgin whose first kiss had been milestone enough that subsequent occasions for kisses still triggered uneasiness, but not nearly as much trepidation as caused by the virginity itself. Not — as some have assumed — anxiety fostered by relentless itchy lust. If that were the case, then prospective situations would not have resulted in the resistant rigidity with which advances were met.
If I were to enumerate my angst, the bullet points would be:
- How was it done? And how would I know how to do it (when the moment came)?
- What if I didn’t know what to do and was really bad at it?
- What if it hurt/what if I don’t like it?
- I’m supposed to like it, I’m supposed to crave it, but all I do is resist and avoid it, what’s wrong with me?
In terms of importance, they shuffled. Sometimes #1 was the most vital, sometimes one of the others. But most often it was #4.
& Not Losing It
I began keeping journals during my last two years of college when I took fiction-writing workshop. (Semesters I didn’t take the workshop, no journal exists.) I also have a handful of earlier “story” manuscripts — compulsively scribbled out during classes I routinely attended but did not have the wherewithal to pay attention. At one point these MSS got damp, dried out with permanent ripples, and now are brittle as 19th century proclamations. Immature narratives, mostly in first person, spelling the grief of my isolation after leaving some friends behind in high school — namely boys I’d allowed to squeeze my breasts or kiss me in preparation for their first dates. Not long after their dates had developed into girlfriends, the girls had requested that the boys not be friends with me anymore. Their docile compliance was difficult to condemn, but easy to let myself be wounded by.
Yet in my journals and story drafts, it seems nowhere did I record my unenthusiastic response to three young men who, between 1976 and 1978, shared my company on a single date.
The first was fall of 1976: A fellow trombone player, a chemistry major, a boy a year younger than me who’d been assigned to the marching band squad of which I was the leader, asked me to accompany him to an academic fraternity dinner/dance. This would naturally negate the conclusion that my playing the trombone made the male trombone-players view me as not enough of a girl to have dating interest in me. I was, however, not enough of a girl to appreciate a dress-up, corsage-wearing occasion where couples actually had their pictures taken. I felt repulsed by the way this boy became a solicitous, polite, car-door-opening drone, leaving the joking, irreverent shirtless college-freshman-in-cutoffs I’d known out on the football field, replacing himself with a suit-wearing Ken doll. Unfair, and not at all his fault. This was a role he had been conditioned to play, on dates, especially formal dates, and possibly had been further trained by the mission of this new fraternity — purely academic without its own house, striving to establish itself as a serious brotherhood of educated men at a known party-school. When, later that semester, he asked me to accompany him to the band banquet, I told him I wouldn’t be attending the banquet. How much intelligence does this take: I did go to the banquet, alone, and can still clearly remember the boy’s round face, his blank also-round eyes, his small expressionless mouth, when he saw me there.
And why was this young man not “good enough” for me? While some may boil it down to me turning up my nose for shallow, frivolous, conceited reasons, in retrospect I can claim a mixture of social immaturity, societal conditioning, and gender-role defiance. I played a “masculine” instrument; I was his squad leader; I was a year older. How could I then appear on his arm as “his girl,” how could he be the Prince Charming I contradictorily, without using that term, was seeking?
Just before fall semester the following year, he died in his apartment, slumped over a chemistry experiment on his kitchen table — flagrantly messing around, as boys will do, with chemicals and gas and flame. Not making a stink bomb to pay retribution to a girl who’d discarded him in a cowardly way. Just creating, exploring, feeling invulnerable, and, unlike the girl who’d rebuffed him, plunging into hands-on involvement with the world outside a stewing adolescent brain. I was called to the band office and told about his demise, because I’d been his squad leader. They assumed I would be distraught. I don’t remember my outward reaction. I’d lied to him, evaded him, rejected him. I presume these things were not major issues for him, months later, at the time of his death. To assume he’d been mortally hurt by me is self-absorbed. As is the response, to his death, of guilt, remorse, shame… which is the only reaction I had. Guilt I did not share with anyone, not because I recognized how selfish it was to feel that way, but because I assumed other people would view me in the same appalling light: the girl who jilted him before he died — or nine to ten months before he died. What others might have viewed as encasing my emotions to protect a fragile psyche was actually guarding my fragile ego. I don’t even remember his last name. Alan Wilson. It just came to me as I typed the previous sentence.
In 1977, the football team ranked in the national top 20, so they earned a televised game the last game of the season, in San Jose. Because it would be broadcast, the athletic department paid to send the entire marching band to that game, twenty band members on the team plane and the rest in six buses. Somehow the PR director got herself a seat on the plane. The PR director had never in her life been on a plane.
The team jet seated three across with a single aisle. The twenty band members — including band officers and those who had classes they had to attend on Friday morning, plus the directors — boarded after the team was already settled. Thus I ended up seated between two stalwart, Black athletes, each of whom had over a foot-and-a-half of height on me, and double my weight.
In the 70s there was an impulse among white liberals to not describe people by their race. So my inclination here was to not mention that the athletes seated on either side of me were African American. However, to deny that their race didn’t make the situation more exciting is to claim a lie.
For some reason, momentarily without reserve, I turned into a journalist for a half hour to engage the two athletes in a conversation of some minor controversy: on the game broadcast the announcer had been complaining that the band was interfering with the quarterback’s communication in the huddle. I asked them if the band disturbed them in any way. They said they never heard any of it, except when the 5 glockenspiel players [an upright xylophone made of metal] played one of their prepared ditties. The athletes did not use the word ditty. But they did like the songs played by the glock section, evidenced as much by the fact that they remembered hearing it as they said so. Perhaps that’s what allowed the athletes to also be college boys, like the ones I knew, only more important boys, and — dare I say — these were taboo. So before I became perilously dizzy with airsickness, I managed to get one of the player’s names and his phone number when he suggested I call him if I ever wanted to “get together.”
Thankfully I didn’t vomit until after the plane landed, in fact not until I was sitting (for some reason) on a concrete curb in the motel’s parking lot. I was probably using sunlight to battle the nausea, something I commonly do, often without even thinking about it, seeking sun through windows of airplanes or airports, at highway rest stops, even through my bedroom blinds. I remember sitting on that curb, watching a trickle of foamy vomit trail away from me on the asphalt. I may have been thinking about how I’d just met a football player, a Black one, a star. From that moment, the next detail I remember is when, after I’d shifted my return-home arrangements to the bus, I called my parents to tell them to pick me up at campus instead of the airport, and that it would be 12 hours later than originally scheduled. At that time my father informed me that my grandfather — his father — had died.
I never fully shook the tremulous aftermath of the airsick nausea. My grandfather’s death (more…)
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