written May 18, 2005, revised and expanded June 6, 2016
Sometimes I get in writing kicks, and although this effort might end up being a punt, I will follow its path to whatever end. And what better subject to write blindly of than the human heart.
* * * * *
I’m glad to be a man. This thought transports me to the junior high classroom of Mr. Meeks, a blustery, eccentric social studies teacher, who one day went into an extended monologue in front of his audience of the rapidly pubescenting–which was quite out of our control–on how lucky he was to be able to admire the oh-so-well crafted womanly form. It seems to me now, admittedly, as it did to my less-tactful teacher then, that the other gender gets the short end of the stick of what can be admired holistically. This essay is not a proclamation of truth, but an acknowledgement of the sorted, sorting luck of random assignment. A chromosome? You can’t be serious.
But why I am bothering to write about a loony educator and a positively positive-sounding sexist comment, committed eons ago, in the midst of impressionable minds and blossoming bodies? Because I quite agree. But hold your fire. Perhaps a stroll through the minefield of personal experience, about a subject always taughtly primed, is in order. Alright, over the top then…
“Not only are they pretty, they smell nice tooo!”
Now, I wasn’t on Mr. Meeks’s level when I was all of five and just introduced to kindergarten. However, I can remember strange magnets pulling my cartoon-filled head towards a little Asian girl named Jenna Fitch, who in the future would move away to North Carolina. For all I know she could still be five years old right now, playing at recess in a purple winter coat. No one trained me, told me, to occasionally chase girls on the playground, but sometimes I would be the one caught.
A particularly talkative girl named Deanna, one morning in first grade between a lesson in applying paste and the adventures of Dick, Jane and Spot, announced to the class that we had gotten married over the weekend. This cannot be true because she did not get the rights to half of my G.I. Joes.
They too kept it platonic and professional.
But, oh, for the simple days of K-I-S-S-I-N-G in trees, when an attraction could begin by choosing the same flavor of juice box during the afternoon break. Of course that same quixotic pairing could crack by the next hour if half of said couple did not lineup for gym with the other. Those hearts never did again met. Whoosh.
Everyone has that one. Mine was Emma Reed. Most people probably keep their training-wheel-crushes hidden away. Some take years to let it slowly percolate–and some, one day when she is sick from school, runs around the school yard yelling at everyone who exactly that “like” is. Evidently the third-grade mind is not yet equipped with the foresight that would caution, “You fool, tomorrow she will return and perhaps find out. It was just an upset stomach!” But for all my early, reckless bravado, my shyness shone through.
Still in third grade, I bought from Hallmark a small figurine of a bear that held in its sitting pose a heart inscribed “Be Mine.” Yet at the moment of action amid the school’s afternoon Valentine’s Day party , however, I was so scared at actually going through with this cockamamie that I could only stand in the hallway, in front of the room where her own classroom’s party was proceeding inside. Soon, Shane McIntosh came by and I asked him to give it to her for me. These are some heavy issues for a kid just going on nine. The funny thing is that even in the moment, even as children, we take these events just as seriously as our adult counterparts, who also often struggle in giving their own little figurine bears.
“I had nothing to do with this”
But let us fast-forward now past pimples, braces, and utter gawkiness, because that is the right of anyone who went through it a first time. Haley Hollis was beautiful. She fit the mold of what Glamour, that glossy, gossipy pile of psychoses, requires that a girl must be in order to be worth a damn. She was probably the most attractive girl in our high school class of 44 people. Her father also owned a prosperous business and so she had nearly the best of everything. She also happened to be a completely conceited individual, and in so being not worth a damn. This was one of my first lessons in Advanced Human Relationships and on life that there’s really only a bunch of guts, glands, and muscle membranes a centimeter beneath pretty wrappings.
So it had been proven through the process of observation that a pair of gorgeous eyes wasn’t all they were cracked up to be… unless they had something more substantial behind them. Enter another girl our freshman year, new to our school. Word had it that she was an odd-fitting new piece to our class puzzle, with the strange, lyrical name of Sidney, a straight-A student, wickedly smart, and sat in the front during every hour. This also didn’t mean everything, but it was a curious change. She was somewhat plain and rather simply dressed, belying her family’s considerable wealth. Everyone else of course treated her with varying amounts of caution or indifference; she may not be the future prom queen. I remember my best friend Hoke making fun of her for all the answers in Spanish class she spouted off, a class we both more often than not struggled in. I called her that night, my first time to ever call a girl. The phone was ready to slip from my hand from sweat. We went out to a movie, and it was going what I imagined was well for such a thing–and then, as we walked out of the theater, a group of her old friends from a far-away town just happened to approach and begin to ask all about her. The Will of 2005 would have some choice words for the Will of 1993, as the older version of me watched the younger begin to abruptly walk away and on home–you know, for encouragement’s sake. But I’d also cut kid some slack. That city in Italy wasn’t something something.
“We know not to end dates like that in 100 BC, and it’s not even been invented yet.”
Friday nights of the mid-Nineties, living the bright, fast life offered by my small Illinois town, admittedly meant more X-Files episodes than football games and whatevers-in-a-cornfield that followed them. A big part of this lamentable marooning was probably due to not having a car. Alright, so there was a car, but does a tanker-sized, Reagan-era LTD count? Not in my book, anyway. Another consideration was the practical, and inescapable: the pea-sized circumference of the town, and thus the school, did not lend itself to girlfriends. Not when nearly every girl you knew had played red-light, green-light with you, or had been to your sixth birthday party. Or they still remembered that time in third grade you brought for Show and Tell that model of the Enterprise you had been working for days on. Regardless, it was impossible to not look on them as sisters, as even Emma Reed now seemed. But my formidable formative years were not to end entirely romanceless–if only by a thread, that is.
In the waning months of my senior year I quit my part-time work at a local seed company outside of town (originally part of deal to finally get funding for a cheap car if I found work, reneged on by my father, but that is another story). Instead I would take part in the spring ritual of baseball. I hadn’t bothered to go out for the team the previous year, lost in that age that was confident there would assuredly be other chances. But I knew I could not let pass by a final opportunity. I ended up playing sparingly, which I could have guessed. The team was located in another town, so the already sparse crowds (to be kind) rarely had anyone from Elmwood in them. One day during lunch in the cafeteria I asked a group of friends if they had plans to ever drive over a catch part of a game–great seat still available!
The second evening in April, just as spring was emerging, I sat from my place on the bench, occasionally looking over to the bleachers. I didn’t see anyone for a long time. That is, until one girl did show up. We had gotten to be better friends in the previous weeks, but I was still shocked she had made the effort. We talked afterwards for hours, walking the running track or adjacent streets around the town until it grew dark. A month later she had been my prom date as a mixed elixir of close friendship and something new was brewing. Only the great stop sign of youth, graduation, loomed straight ahead. Understandably, she was not anxious to plot out a continuation of so brief a tract with two paths that were destined to split off to separate colleges. She suggested the brakes be applied.
I talked to my dad about this, my first real question of the heart, one afternoon as we worked in the garage. Dad has always been more the feeling, philosophical side of my parental duo, while Mom has remained firmly in the realm of the practical. I was staying away from Mom on this one at all cost. Dad asked me bluntly, as he often does, toweling off grease from his hands, “Do you care for her?” I answered that I did, and I did. Eighteen or not, I was wise enough to draw the distinction between crush and real. Dad then gave me this best John Wayne: “Well son, if you feel that way you need to go over to her place right now, bang on the door until she answers, take her in your arms, and say that she means too much to let her go.”
“I have a whole bunch of other, totally outdated advice if you need it.”
I let this B-movie line sink in for a moment–but not too much–as I polished the hood of the car and then quietly said, “Yes, but real caring and love is when you are able to say, ‘I place your happiness and wishes above my own.’ To let her have what she wants, even if it’s not me.” And I still believe that.
There wasn’t a reconciliation or last-minute Hollywood ending. I went to one college and she went to another. Yet in her absence she was a great help to me; for the first time I had a real idea of what I was truly searching for. Surely, if in a town of 2,100 I had found someone who complimented me so well, a campus of 16,000 (or the wider world beyond) meant a soulmate before lunch.
College was another world, and I had the attention of girls from the beginning–a new development, but it was odd. The first night we ventured out, this large, fearless clutch of freshmen, we discovered life now meant asking and answering two questions: “Where are you from–a suburb of Chicago, right?” and the obligatory “What is your major?” Two girls, also freshman, began to tag along with a myself and a floor-mate I had just met how had suddenly been given the nickname of Collinsville , and the lessons would not be in short supply. Collinsville had one of the pair seemingly hanging on him all night, yet in the moment he stepped away she began to ask about me. What was this? Further on, I would learn her friend became fed up with me because I hadn’t tried anything with her. I quickly learned the rules, even if I didn’t follow them.
What did I see, at these parties, and what could I tell from these people’s eyes, their laughs, their wobbles? Some were lonely–the reason, I suspect, which drove both sexes. Some had experience at the scene from high school, and others carried over to university a pang to fit in. Some were ready to test the waters of what they could never do at home. Many were just bored, looking for a good distraction. So why are one-night stands so prevalent–is it me, or were we just talking about juice-time hook-ups? It’s available, it’s free, and there’s drinks all around. But I also think that a lot of nights people just wanting someone else to take an interest in them. This is understandable. There’s a thought somewhere, “This person thinks I’m beautiful/witty/charming/insightful/smart enough. Found me appealing enough,” which some might use at times for their overall worth.
God cannot be playing fair that such an important thing (as far as us lowly humans are concerned) are connected to plain, stupid luck. Age, location, wealth, education, in history religion and race, and for some star-crossed lovers the occasional family feud have kept couples from each others’ eager arms. Often it is as simple as one not being in the exact same place in life, and how can a person be asked to be what they not yet are?
“On second thought, this is safer than Tinder.”
I never did exactly find what I was looking for in college, that soulmate that would walk right into me. I met some great girls in that time, that for one reason or another never entirely clicked or went too long. One day a sociology professor was a big help, saying that 80% of couples that wed meet in college. I want the math checked. One thing I can say is that I’ve never settled. I’ve seen a lot of that too. Immediately, I’m sure, the assumption by readership might fly to looks, but it can also be about money, status, or just the first person to pay any notice, kind of otherwise. Of course–skipping leaps and bound to what I’ve witnessed in the Navy–some young sailors marry for the holy reason of off-base housing. Amen.
That marriage did not last, if it can be believed. Half don’t, which begs the question of the point of so poorly-aimed institutions? It seems that many fall into the same spin that has them worrying over their dress size, or the head-turning power of a new car–the notion that marriage is the be all and end all. This fixation has been long baked in, both inspiring and needing to be fed with 800-page bridal magazines. Like life, all this should be about the journey, and not the destination. If not, it becomes about getting off the market as soon as possible to a bidder that passes the basic background check. And a house in which the roof is built first is just a lousy idea.
“You’re treading awfully close to copyright infringement there, Buddy.”
Alright, fine. All I’m saying is this: instead of all that, what it takes as best best as I’ve surmised, is a trust and a want to overcome all things together, brick by brick.