The one who got away

Curtis Sittenfeld, Rebecca Traister, Geraldine Sealey, Andrew Leonard and others reflect on their lost loves.


Salon Staff
February 14, 2005 9:49PM (UTC)

Regrets, we've had a few.

They're not all do-over regrets, not all rending-of-clothes, gnashing-of-teeth regrets -- though some may be. Often our pains over lost loves are the kind that hit us gently when we see a face that looks familiar, or pass a restaurant where we once enjoyed a good meal, or a bar where we caught the eye of a person who has since disappeared from our lives. They come up when we recall a decision we once made -- maybe in our teenage years, maybe six months ago -- that caused someone we loved, lustily, longingly or lightly, to drift or slam their way away. When we wonder where a person is, and whether they think about us, and how it is that we don't know the answer to that because we used to know everything that person was thinking.

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Sometimes we let good people go out of our lives. Often, it's because we don't see the good until it's too late and they're long gone. Just as often, perhaps, it's because we do see the good, and it's just not the right time to have it in our lives. And then there are the poisonous or frustrating people we allow to linger too long, the relationships that we draw out because they pain us and the pain feels good, and then when they're gone there's a gaping absence where all that pain used to be. There are those we're not brave enough to kiss, and those we're not brave enough to hear tell us that they love us, and then there are those who run from our bravery -- from our valentines and protestations of eternal devotion.

And so we let those souls who have brought us happiness, companionship, good sex, or maybe just the promise of any of those, spin off into the world. We cut them loose, consciously or unconsciously. And then, later, we think, "Maybe I really let that one get away."

And so for Valentine's Day we took some time to think about lost loves.

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Lost but not lost

She lives in Portland now, maybe Eugene. Or someplace else, I don't know. When I Google her, the trail has gone cold: a photograph she took five years ago, some software company where she used to work, bulletin boards for Dickens fans and would-be female mystery writers. That might mean something or nothing. Maybe she's married now, and has kids. (Like me.) Maybe toys sleep on their sides in the living room all night, and she lives in a wooden house on a bluff where she can't quite see the ocean from the big picture window, but she can sit there in the morning drinking coffee and watching the fog roll around the big cypress trees. I can promise you one thing: Sometimes when she's sitting there with that fat Italian coffee mug, she hits a little patch of stillness and there I am. Uninvited and unexpected, maybe unwanted. But still.

Here's how it happened with Samantha, or at any rate here's the story that I've taught myself, to explain whatever really happened. Everybody I knew used to go to this one nightclub on Haight Street every Monday night. If you were young and white and the right kind of bored, and you lived in San Francisco when I did -- in the middle of the '80s, the really bad plague years -- you know the one I'm talking about. It was a cavernous place full of curtains and staircases and murky recesses. The rest of the week it was a gay disco, and I suppose the idea that men with bad mustaches and German Army undershirts had recently been humping in the shadows was part of its sleazy appeal to the rest of us, the suburban refugees who thought we had built a little island society where we didn't have to care about the Reaganites, the pious liberals, our parents, our overachieving siblings at Georgetown or Yale.

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We did care about bands, of course, and while nobody had yet used the expression "alt-rock" in Time magazine, that's what the Monday-night scene was on Haight Street. Alt-rock in embryo. So on this particular Monday the Jesus and Mary Chain were playing, and as usual they sounded like somebody had the record player and the vacuum cleaner on at the same time. I came up a staircase and around a curtain -- I was going for a drink, or wishing that my friend who usually had drugs wasn't trying to get clean this week, whatever -- and there was Samantha.

I hadn't seen her for four or five years. We'd had big crushes on each other in high school, as we later admitted, but had been too geeky to do anything about it. She was tall and blond, yeah, but blond has never meant anything to me, by itself. (I loved her just as much with chestnut hair, and during the brief black-with-white-streaks period.) She was also bony, with big eyes and big teeth, she smoked a lot, and she'd been taking complicated prescription medications as long as I'd known her. I seriously believe that one reason we never wound up together was that we saw into each other a little too far. We could see ourselves sinking into long nights of bottomless near-depression, endless hours of drinking jug wine and watching British TV shows on some unvacuumed sofa that smelled of cat.

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On that night, though, the mutual alcohol buzz was just right, and the idea that we were cool for being in that place with those people -- sure, that seems a little pathetic now, but it was surprisingly powerful. Coming around that curtain and seeing her turn to look at me -- she was wearing a tight white T-shirt, peg-leg black Levi's and a moth-eaten cashmere cardigan with the sleeves rolled up as far as they could go, and the orangey stage lights were creating a buzzing nimbus around her head -- was the closest I've ever come to actually being inside that movie you make in your head about your own life when you find yourself alone on Friday night.

So that was how it went. We pretty much jumped each other. There was the moment when her arms went around my neck and her face pressed against mine and I could smell the cigarette smoke and faint gingery conditioner in her hair, and all the doubt and shame of my existence lifted and all my nerve endings seemed to wake for the first time. I was drunk on holding a prodigious power over another person, if only for a second or a minute, and drunk on utterly surrendering myself to her power. And as you know perfectly well, from that time with that girl or that guy on that dock or at somebody's summer house or on the beach the night of the fireworks or behind the piece-of-crap trailer where they held history class, there's just no drunk like it.

"Anthony, where have you been all this time?" she yelled in my ear. "How are you? Are you married?" I said no, which wasn't exactly a lie, and that was the first of the times we would say things to each other that weren't exactly lies over the course of the next decade or so. (Pretty much the last thing she said to me, the last time I talked to her, was "Of course I love you," and I'm sure that wasn't exactly a lie either.) We dragged each other into one of those alluring dark corners, and the things we said on the occasions when we came up for air -- well, you know, you've said them yourself: You're beautiful, I've always loved you, always, always, god I've missed you, how could we let this happen, we will never, no never, some drunken angel was watching over us and steered us into each other, like a truck into a lamppost.

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Couldn't we have just left it there? That was as good as it ever got for Tony and Samantha; we hadn't hurt anybody yet, not even ourselves. Couldn't she have gone home to her mom's house and me to my freezing fleabag apartment, played Bryan Ferry and Frank Sinatra records until we fell asleep, and realized amid the next afternoon's hangover that it was a perfect love affair the way it was, entire within itself, unrepeatable and unchasable? That might have saved us a lot of drift and coldness and indecision, three-hour phone calls, midnight car rides to nowhere, lies and not-lies told to each other, other people and ourselves.

It's a stupid question, of course. Six or seven years later, during a phone call on a night something really bad had happened, I asked Samantha if she would have married me if I'd asked her to that night in 1985 on Haight Street. She said, "In a second. Oh, in a second. I almost asked you." That made it better, in a way, because that would only have ended in disaster. Everything did anyway. Look at us now, sitting wherever we are thinking about each other, lost but not lost.

-- Anthony Dever (a pseudonym)

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Me make fire for you

During what turns out to be my last summer as a single person, I fly to Idaho for a weeklong camping and horseback riding trip through the 2.4 million acre Frank Church Wilderness, miles from the middle of nowhere. Through a freak scheduling accident, it turns out I'm the only person on the trip. Just me, two horses, four pack mules and -- oh, my! -- my guide: Justin, a 20-year-old with a baby face and Wrangler jeans. Yes, just the two of us in the largest wilderness in the lower 48, accessible only on foot, horseback or teeny plane. It's like Blind Date meets Survivor meets Who Wants to Marry a Horse Whisperer?

When we arrive at our first night's camp, he sets about gathering wood, saying, "Me make fire for Lynn."

We are going to get along fine.

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We sit up and talk, looking at the stars and thinking, "Holy shit, I am alone in the wilderness with a not unattractive member of the opposite sex." I learn that Justin and I have different skill sets. He can hunt, fish, shoot, track, build, farm, break a horse, castrate a calf, dissect an elk. I can read French.

When the fire goes out, I go to my tent. Justin sleeps outside. I don't dare, yet. Fear of being swallowed by the pitchest of dark, fear of being tempted by the stupidest of moves. Sure, Justin could fashion a condom out of a squirrel bladder, but neither that -- nor the fact that I'm 12 years older -- is the issue. You don't want to hook up with your lifeline. In the wilderness, it's not like you can avoid him the next day.

Still, drifting off, I think more seriously every sleepy second about becoming a frontier wife and filing my articles by pony.

For the next few days, Justin and I ride morning to dusk, through forest, over meadows, along creeks, over fire-scarred mountaintops spiked with sooty skeletons of pine. We talk about our first times; we go hours in silence. We sing Merle Haggard. We lie in a miniature meadow of tiny red berries, letting them pop in our mouths like caviar.

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One afternoon, riding along a ridge, we spot a giant bear shooing her cubs up a tree. Shortly thereafter, a smaller -- but big enough -- bear steps onto the trail 50 yards ahead of us. Jumping off his horse, Justin hands me her bridle and the mule line. The danger is that the animals will spook, which is one thing in a barn, quite another on a ridge. I hold tight, watching Justin run toward the bear. Not a typo: toward the bear. He yells and throws small rocks at it until it shrugs and lumbers away. This is the coolest, and hottest, thing anyone has ever done in my presence.

That night, Justin shows me his .357 Magnum. One thing leads to another and I fire it. My tobacco-tin target lies untouched.

We celebrate my initiation with chicken-fried steak. Justin also digs up a bottle of vodka, which, it turns out, mixes perfectly with Country Time lemonade. We tear at the steaks and talk with our mouths full, fingers slick with grease, chase it down with sweet pink drinks.

Then we dance. Justin picks my plate off my lap, stands me up from my log, and leads me in a humming two-step around the fire. Suddenly, he's flipping me over his shoulder like the fancy people on the country cable channels. I am over the moon, over the bright crescent moon that no one else could see for hundreds of miles.

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When we ride in to base camp we find the two other guides -- Jared and Shane -- making us margaritas in the cook tent. We all sit together in the outdoor hot tub. Not a typo: we all sit together in the outdoor hot tub. Drinking margaritas. (Wearing bathing suits.) My first thought: "Dear Penthouse Forum, I never thought these letters were real ..." I imagine the porn movie we could make: "Laura Ingalls Just Got Wilder." But I just listen to the guys bullshit, proud that Justin could tell them that the city slicker could handle her horse, her rare steak, her two-step and her liquor, not to mention his gun. And I am glad that firing Justin's gun turns out to be a metaphor for what never happens between us -- not even that last night when Jared and Shane turn in, not even after Justin coaxes me into jumping with him out of the hot tub, into the freezing brook, and back into the tub. We hold hands and say, "Go!" and the sudden gulping cold-then-hot takes my breath away. God knows when I got this mature, but I figure sometimes it's better to wish you had than to wish you hadn't. I unroll my sleeping bag on some horse blankets, under the stars, next to Justin, who is next to his gun. And I sleep.

-- Lynn Harris

Threesome

When I was a college senior, I fell in love with David, a grad student five years older than I. David was a neurotic, hilarious and particularly brilliant one-man-show of an American literature student. I met him in a graduate seminar where he made lengthy theoretical rants about Jefferson significantly more palatable with his caffeinated funny-Jew shtick.

David had a constant foil in his soft-spoken, good-looking best friend and fellow Americanist John. The two were a social and academic package: Dave-and-John, John-and-Dave. John was a part-WASP, part-native American Ivy League graduate; he looked like the kind of guy who always had a woman on his arm. Not like the flame-haired, bespectacled David, whom I pegged as a diamond-in-the-rough boy who'd probably developed his class-clown act to mask his romantic insecurities. I would fix this, I decided in our first class together. I would become his sexual savior.

It was as a college senior that I learned to distrust the diamond-in-the-rough theory of men.

David -- wonky Melville scholar and laugh-out-loud nebbish -- was in fact catnip for girls, and he knew it. He was being pursued by women from every sector of campus: the blond, North Face-encased sophomores from the classes he taught, his masters-student roommate with whom he was having an affair, a gamine history Ph.D. candidate named Elizabeth. And me.

David wasn't interested in settling on just one woman. He entertained all his admirers -- chatting us up, making us laugh, sometimes hooking up with us, but never allowing himself to get caught up in the messy matter of emotional attachment.

I hung on David's every word, spent every available hour in his presence. It's funny, how little pride I had then. I, who would now prefer to chew off my own foot than leave myself vulnerable to a man. My devotion to David was visible with every smile, every over-eager laugh, every Saturday morning I awoke early and hung over to visit him at his work-study shift in the library.

We settled into quite a social routine, we admirers of David. We drank together, went to Jonathan Richman concerts and to Wrigley Field. I introduced David and John to my undergraduate friends; they let me into their inside-joke of a world. Sometimes we'd sit in the student center drinking coffee and smoking all day long. One of us would get up to go to class and return to find the others still sitting there, discussing Dylan, or Springsteen, or "Seinfeld."

David enjoyed my attention. I think he was genuinely taken with me on some level, and flirted enough to keep me circling: a visible appraisal of my body, a hand on my thigh that would make me crazy. But as soon as the touch lingered for a moment too long, he'd find a reason to get up and go away. David prided himself on his own mercurial impulses, and often made a big show of not showing up somewhere, or of leaving in a huff. His ability to walk out on an opportunity to spend time with me always hurt. But I realized it wasn't just about me; David was always walking out on people -- always sending a signal that he didn't care about anyone as much as they cared about him.

When David had an antisocial spell, John and I would often find ourselves partners in rejection -- and I always suspected that he was as stung as I. I confided everything in John. He was a wonderful listener, a kind and smart man, who lived his social and intellectual life entirely in the shadow of his best friend. And he was the perfect ear for my litany of woe; John, after all, must have been in love with David too. As time went on, he began to counsel me in earnest: He'd tell me I was too good for David, that he was a self-absorbed lout who didn't know what he had in me. I had a hard time buying John's line: If David was such a jerk, why did John orbit him as attentively as I did?

Sometimes John and I would bump into each other and go for a drink just the two of us, though we'd still talk mostly about David. He'd stop by my apartment on weekends to visit me and my roommate, Becca. Sometimes, he took us downtown to the dive bars he frequented. John had a girlfriend, though no one ever saw her. I remember him telling me once about how she'd had a craving for the sausage links and hot chocolate breakfasts of her youth, so he'd driven her all the way to a Bob Evans restaurant in Indiana.

I have no idea when John first told me he was in love with me. It didn't matter; I don't think I even really heard it. It was a seagull call completely drowned out by the crashing waves of my obsession with David. "But I'm no good for you," I'd tell him impatiently. "I'm too in love with David." In truth, I wasn't worried about whether I'd be good for John. I didn't consider John. And he knew it. But he'd nod kindly and tell me again that he loved me.

By spring, David and John were taking their orals; I was writing my thesis; we were all reading Faulkner in cafes together. Every sensation seemed heightened; every afternoon sharp with pressure and possibility. I was still aware only of my fast-beating want for David, and not of the other confused beams of desire shooting around me. David was simultaneously more remote and more sexually attentive to me. He was also dating Elizabeth, the gamine historian, and I could tell he was hurting her already. John had broken up with his girlfriend and was increasingly devoted to me. Each night, he talked me off a ledge, convinced me to get back to my thesis reading, bought me a beer, indulged me in some cattiness about Elizabeth.

John gave me his good-luck baseball to help me through the last, backbreaking weeks of my thesis. There was a story behind the ball, something about the game where he'd caught it, or the fact that he'd used it to alleviate stress when he was finishing his undergraduate thesis, or something; I can't remember. But it was a big deal that he gave the ball to me. I remember feeling like I didn't deserve it.

I never kissed John. I don't even remember how we said goodbye after I packed up my things to move to New York. I recall every last moment with David -- none of which were satisfying or even particularly warm. I do remember that at some point I tried to give John his baseball back and he told me to keep it; he said the first few years out of college required a lucky baseball.

By the time I left, David and John weren't really friends anymore. David and I stayed in touch for a couple of years and then had a dramatic (and, it seems, permanent) falling out. He finished his dissertation and got a teaching job on the East Coast. John and I lost touch almost immediately after my move. I understand he dropped out of grad school and that he's now married to Elizabeth, the gamine historian. The way I heard the story -- secondhand -- they first bonded by commiserating over the ways that David had hurt them. My former roommate Becca said she saw John on a Chicago street recently with their son.

There's no part of me that thinks that John and I would have -- or should have -- ended up married. But I think every so often about how my final year in college could have played out, had I bothered to listen to the imprecations of a man who not only liked me, but whom I genuinely liked. I liked John so much -- in a way that was companionable and gentle and probably even sexy, had I only understood sex better -- that it never occurred to me to fall in love with him. He didn't rip me apart or remain elusive; he never once caused me pain or made me feel rejected. And that meant that for me, he barely existed. Love then was the sensation of insatiable desire shooting through my body; it had nothing to do with affection or the possibility of union.

I wonder how much I could have learned about healthy romantic relationships had I let myself fall for John. I wonder whether I could have broken my pattern of pursuing cads earlier, before I spent more years chasing the ambitious, the neurotic and the narcissistic down the sidewalks of New York. I wonder mostly if John and I would have had a laughter-and-sex-filled year, a warm winter and sunny spring together, both blissfully free from giving a shit about David and his ilk.

I haven't heard from John in over seven years. But the baseball he gave me sits on the bookshelf next to my desk. I don't treat it with reverence or anything; I can't remember throwing it around, even in moments of great stress. But on some level, it's one of those possessions -- origins nearly forgotten -- that I'm careful not to let slip through my fingers.

-- Rebecca Traister

"Same for me. I feel the same way"

In ninth grade, "Wes" and I sat near each other in study hall, and when he wanted to confer, he'd tap me on the arm with a pencil. Wes was bright, easy to talk to, slightly spacey, several inches shorter than I was, and extraordinarily cute; he had piercing blue eyes and a wide smile. However, for most of freshman year, my attention lay elsewhere. We attended a boarding school in Massachusetts, and I was at this time in my life so adept at developing crushes that I'd found a boy to like before my official arrival on campus -- I'd picked him out when making the prospective-student visit the spring before. It was not until well into freshman year that Wes' huge and undeniable adorableness, and the fact that it far eclipsed this other's boy's, finally occurred to me.

Of course, there are plenty of cute boys at your typical New England prep school, so it wasn't only Wes' cuteness that had me smitten; it was also that we talked completely easily, that no matter the subject (teachers, television shows, whether or not everyone in the world has a secret identical twin) our conversations always felt -- even if we were disagreeing -- like inside jokes. Wes seemed to enjoy talking to me as much as I enjoyed talking to him, he seemed to get me, and even back then, before I realized how rare this type of connection is, I recognized it as a good thing.

And so when I knew I didn't just like Wes, I actually liked him, the only thing to do was become increasingly self-conscious and tense in his presence. The next fall, when we returned to school, he'd shot up in height, our study hall seats were far apart, and we had no classes together. As if these last two twists of fate weren't bad enough, I took the situation into my own hands and quit talking to him. Completely. For almost two years. I think that I even, pretty much, stopped making eye contact with him. What can I say? It made life less confusing.

But then we began talking again -- the truth is that, in spite of how large this all loomed then, I can't remember the exact circumstances -- and during senior year we were friendly. He once made a reference to the long silence that had passed between us, and he seemed to be good-naturedly mocking both himself and me, our mutual silliness.

The week after we graduated, there were parties at a bunch of our classmates' houses in different states. At a party early in the week, bolstered by what was probably about half a beer, I confessed my enormous, years-long crush on him. Then I made a joke about the awkwardness of this confession -- I was, at the age of 17, nothing if not self-defeatingly meta -- and he said, "What if I said, 'Same for me? I feel the same way'?" Clearly, what I should have done then was plant a huge kiss on his lips. I didn't -- again, weirdly, I can't recall what either of us did -- but later in the week, I was at a movie in Harvard Square with a few friends and in the middle I got up to use the bathroom and I remember walking through the empty theater lobby and being in the empty bathroom and feeling that by-yourself glee, his words echoing in my head like a promise or an incantation: Same for me, I feel the same way. They were a good luck charm to hold onto until I next saw him.

This didn't happen until the very last party of the week, when we ended up, at 3 a.m., standing outside by a fence on Long Island. He told me I had nice eyes, and I proceeded to set my arms down on the fence, and set my forehead facedown on top of my arms. I'd never have kissed him, and in case he was planning to kiss me -- well, just let him try! And yet, of course, I managed to feel disappointed when he and I returned to separate quarters of the house where we were staying and in the bathroom I ran into two girls in my class who were brushing their teeth after their own late-night rendezvous with boys. Their hair was ratted in the back, there were grass stains on their jeans. In other words: They'd gone through with it, in all its complicated, enjoyable messiness.

I suppose now that I put my head down partly because I was tired and partly because I was afraid of getting what I wanted. That might have been overwhelming, whereas failing after giving it your best shot -- or at least making a confession you could pretend was your best shot -- was something I could handle. In the 12-plus years since our boarding school graduation, Wes and I have been in sporadic touch. The last time we saw each other was in the spring of 2003, when I'd flown to the city where he lives for the wedding of a grad school classmate. He was still nice, and easy to talk to, and attractive in the more hardened way of an adult. He wasn't his high school self, or perhaps I should say he didn't exert the force on me he had back then. He was pleasantly ordinary. And what this made me think was, Phew -- I'm not supposed to marry him! Granted, this realization came as a relief partly because he had a girlfriend, but it also came as a relief because it meant there was nothing to correct. I didn't have to fix the mistakes of high school. It was over and past.

For the last year, I've been going out with a guy who is so good to me that I often accuse him of having studied some sort of sensitive boyfriend handbook. I can honestly say I don't wish I were Grown-up Me dating Grown-Up Wes. And yet, to think of how devastatingly and consumingly I adored him, how part of the reason I couldn't allow anything to happen was that it seemed like it would be such a big deal if it did (surely, it would change my life in ways I might not be prepared for!), I have to admit I sort of miss that. Feeling unhinged by a crush is mostly draining, but, as everyone knows, during those interludes when you're hopeful, it's also really, really fun. And, in the end, Wes isn't the one that got away; it's a moment in time that did.

-- Curtis Sittenfeld

Animal attraction Before I ever fell for a guy, I was completely, totally, head over heels in love with a beagle named Mickey McGee. Mickey, my first pet, was purebred and a runt of the litter -- more petite than many of her kind, with clean, sharp markings and a regal air. I got her when I was 8. My dad and I plucked our scared and shivering puppy with her oversize ears from the pee-stained, newspaper-lined cardboard box where she spent her first few weeks. As we drove away from the farm where she was born, Mickey yowled in agony as we passed her mom in a pen on the side of the road. Mickey's mom howled and jumped at the caged walls, and Mickey furiously scratched my arms as if running toward her mother. I always thought she was a little bit demented after that -- maybe she was deranged anyway -- and I think her craziness is why I adored her so much. She was such a drama queen, my own little canine Zelda Fitzgerald.

Mickey would take to running desperately in circles around our living room, chasing, or perhaps escaping, demons that only she could see. When she got into such a frenzy, her eyes glowed a yellowish green. As she grew older, she routinely escaped from our yard, causing me no end of torment as I imagined her getting flattened by some careless driver. When Mickey left on her solo adventures, she usually liked to tear through other people's garbage and roll around in the remainder of their spaghetti dinner from the night before. Occasionally, she would flop herself onto a pile of the neighbor dogs' turds and rub her back all over the feces until it was embedded in her short, thick hair. Then she'd come home to us, annoyed when we tossed her in the tub for an immediate bath. I secretly loved the whole production. Mickey always found a way to be center stage. I adored Mickey so much, I remember a Saturday night I spent in the kitchen on the floor in her "corner," where her little wooden bed was. I sat with her warm, sleeping, snoring body curled up on my lap for hours, content and quiet in the dark except for the golden glow of a light above the sink.

Given my childhood infatuation with my pet, perhaps it makes sense that my first real human crush was also an animal lover. My seventh-grade classmate Joe and I had a lot in common, including our overwhelming, chest-swelling, mind-warping, perhaps not altogether healthy obsessions with our family pets. I think what impressed me most about Joe was how he took his animal obsession to a whole new level. At first, when I didn't know him that well, he seemed kind of shy, and yet, when he zeroed in on a new friend, as he did with me, he wasn't afraid to reveal something potentially embarrassing about himself. Joe had two distinct personalities. Sometimes he spoke in his own pubescent voice. And sometimes he spoke as his alter-ego: his gerbil George. It's true that Joe also had moments when he thought he was Steve Perry. But usually, Joe was most comfortable being his beloved George. And I grew very comfortable with Joe being George, too.

I first began to understand Joe's obsession with George the gerbil when he passed me a note between classes. It was a ripped-out piece of notebook paper with shaggy frayed edges, neatly folded into a square, with my name printed on the outside. I unfolded it, nervous and excited -- because getting a note from a boy had to mean he was at least thinking of liking you. Instead of the typical "What's up? Math class sucks" kind of scribblings you might imagine getting from a male middle-schooler, Joe had drawn for me dramatic pencil sketches of King George the Gerbil, with messages from King George that I can no longer remember. Instead of being weirded out by getting a missive from a boy's prized rodent, I was intrigued and touched. And as Joe and I started writing more notes to one another, and talking on the phone, I started becoming obsessed with Joe -- in the way I had only before been infatuated with Mickey McGee.

I thought about Joe (and George) all the time. Walking to school. In class. At dinner with my family. I remember being in jazz dance class, standing in line waiting my turn to do a combination across the floor, and I realized, 45 minutes into the lesson, that I hadn't thought of anything but Joe. I remember marveling at the power of my feelings for him. It was nothing I had ever felt before, and it was an all-consuming distraction. Was this what being an adult was going to be like? Was I in love?

In my school, kids "went out" in seventh grade, but that pretty much meant sitting next to your "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" in art class or at lunch, and maybe you'd go to the movies, but probably with other friends. Joe and I were already way more intimate than that, I thought. Instead of sitting in the dark kitchen on a Saturday night with my dog, I often spent weekend nights now talking to Joe for hours on the phone (although at least a third of the time, I was talking to George). I was so in love with him, but we weren't officially doing anything but enjoying each other's company. So I decided to ask Joe "out" one day, so he could officially be my boyfriend. It was an awkward, forced moment I ended up regretting. He seemed embarrassed, and I was too. And I worried that our relationship would never be the same, that we wouldn't talk as much anymore. That he wouldn't pass me notes. But instead, he seemed more comfortable with me than ever.

We weren't "going out," but soon after I asked Joe out, he invited me to go miniature golfing on a Saturday afternoon, just the two of us. I talked to my girlfriends about the bizarreness of the situation. "Wait -- he said he didn't want us to be a couple, but isn't this a date? Am I missing something here?" Instead of being annoyed, I went, eager to spend any time at all with Joe. We played Q-Bert and Donkey Kong in the arcade, hit some putt-putt, and ate candy bars. I loved him more than ever, but I never had any real confirmation that he felt the same way I did. We never even kissed.

One summer day I got a call from Joe. He was frantic, his voice shaking and sounding small. George had escaped from his little cage. I was accustomed to this kind of thing with Mickey, and knew all too well the horror and helplessness of just sitting around imagining what was happening to your pet. But there were even more dangers out there in the world for gerbils. A flushing toilet could swallow it whole. A clueless human could stomp it to death in one lumbering stride. Hell, even tall grass was a problem. Joe seemed to know all of this, and was already beginning to think he'd have to start a life without George. I felt so bad for him, and yet his call made me feel special. Losing George was, apart from losing a family member, about the worst thing that could happen to Joe. And faced with this tragedy, he called me for comfort. We spoke several times that afternoon as he and his family fanned out across their neighborhood to look for George. Amazingly, someone eventually found him -- alive -- in the drainage ditch at the edge of their lawn.

Joe and his family moved away the summer before we started high school. They only moved about 5 miles, but that meant he would go to a different school, hang out in different places and have different friends. At first, I was devastated. But eventually, my infatuation with him faded, as did our conversations. He may have gotten away, but he'll always have a special place in my heart. He showed me that some boys -- the good ones -- are as worthy of obsession as beagles are.

-- Geraldine Sealey

Love letter lost

I met Irenka in a bar in Hong Kong where the foreign dancers liked to drink tequila after work. It was a mad, jumbled kind of place, full of dissolute expats and locals with a little bit of wild in their eyes. The kind of place a guy like me swooned over at first sight.

But I'd never been in this particular bar before that night. Two days earlier, I'd been in Taiwan, with no intention of heading across the South China Sea.

But Taiwan wasn't working for me. I'd come there from California to find out why a long-distance relationship had gone sour, and the answers I was learning were not to my satisfaction. John, an old roommate of mine, was urging me to get the hell out of town. Let's go to Hong Kong for a couple of days, he said. Anything is better than wallowing here.

He had a point. I was a sad case. It was one week after the Tiananmen massacre, and 10 years of studying China had suddenly lost their attraction. On top of that, I had just broken my clavicle in a biking accident, and been dumped by a woman I loved. Maybe the reason John wanted to get me out of town so fast was that he was afraid my black hole was about to obliterate his apartment.

In any case, we went, and we ended up in that bar. We started drinking San Miguels and not long afterward we found ourselves in the midst of a group of foul-mouthed, tattooed women who thought John had a cute butt and I needed to cheer up.

Irenka had long, dirty blond hair and full red lips. She was a dancer, she said, at a club where Chinese men came to ogle foreign women. She was discreet about what kind of dancing she did, but that was of little relevance to me. She was interested.

Getting dumped usually makes me feel not quite at the top of my game. But having a sexy woman nod her head at me with a twinkle in their eye? It's a simple old story, made all the better in a bar so loud and crowded that you had to holler to get heard, your lips just inches from her face, the press of bodies mashing you against each other.

She was half-Russian, half English, she said. Irenka. And somewhere during our mad conversation, with our knees jammed together, and my voice getting hoarse as I rambled on about god knows what or who -- I realized that I was having a hell of a good time. She wasn't just interested -- I was interesting. And life wasn't so dreary when you were chatting up Irenka in Hong Kong at 4 in the morning on a hot June night.

We kissed at dawn, and said goodbye. Then John forced me back to our room in the sleazy maze that was Kowloon's Chungking Mansions. We had a flight leaving town in just a couple of hours and John wouldn't let me out of his sight because he was afraid I would miss the plane.

But we had exchanged addresses, and Irenka had promised to make her way to San Francisco. So I wrote her. But the months went by, and I never heard a word.

Then, a year later, a letter arrived. She had written me back, before, but the first letter had never gotten to me. She told me it had been very long, and she had written it on the Trans-Siberian express, and that she had loved the letter I had sent her, but after so much time had gone by and she had never heard from me again, she decided not to come to the Bay Area. Then the letter she had written from somewhere in the Siberian Tundra made its way back to her.

By that time, a year later, I was on to other things, and other women. I sighed and put the letter away. But every now and then, I wonder what would have happened if the letter from Irenka written on the Trans-Siberian express had made its way to me, the letter written by the woman I had kissed at dawn to the sound of dirty water lapping against the docks of Hong Kong harbor. I think I would have found a way to see her again.

Did she get away? Maybe not, but she's the one I've wondered about ever since.

-- Andrew Leonard


Salon Staff

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