Recently, in the course of my work, I was looking over a long list of consultants I needed to contact when I happened upon a name that sounded unmistakably familiar. "Oh god," I moaned. "Oh, no. I think this guy asked me out in freshman year of high school." This is one of the major drawbacks to living and working in the town where you grew up. The moment I heard his voice with his precise, oddly formal way of speaking, I knew it was him.
I hadn't thought about him in decades. We used to sit together on the long bus ride to the private school we attended, which was miles and miles down a winding road out by the South Gate of Mt. Diablo. We probably would have remained friendly travel companions had he not changed everything by calling me one night and stammering out an invitation to see the latest Stephen King movie playing at the Festival Theater.
I was very flustered and taken aback. I had never thought of him in any remotely romantic way and was mortified to discover that he had amorous feelings towards me, and also a little annoyed and angry that he had to ruin the nice, companionable vibe we had going with this seemingly out-of-the-blue act. Unfortunately, my immediate reaction was to bluntly exclaim "No! I mean, ummm, no." followed by a horrible string of inept, lame excuses.
In my defense, I was honestly planning to put Clairol Shimmering Streaks in my hair that weekend. I was really into being a blonde then, as unconvincing as that look was with my natural coloring. But in retrospect, telling him I was too busy doing my hair to go out with him was probably not the gentlest way to let him down. To this day I will never forget the hurt in his voice as he said "Doing your hair? Oh. Okay. Sorry."
I didn't want to taint our business dealings by dredging up painful adolescent trauma, so I mentioned nothing of our shared past to him on the phone. However, in an admittedly too little, 25 years too late attempt to atone for my prior callousness, I lavished him with far more attention that I usually devote to potential business consultants, practically smothering him with daily emails and calls and status updates and positive encouragement and flattery. Because of this, we struck up a wonderful rapport during our frequent conversations.
Still, the more we talked, the worse I felt. Hearing his voice and speaking to him so often brought my high school memories to full focus - and I saw clearly how unkind I had been, and how miserable he had looked when he saw me at school afterwards. I don't think the incident scarred him for life or anything, in fact I hope he forgot all about it by sophmore year. But I still felt deeply ashamed. So much so that I started to think maybe I should tell him who I was, just so I could apologize to him.
I couldn't decide. On the one hand, maybe it would be kinder not to say anything. Having lived here nearly all my life, I know all too well what it's like to be going along, merrily living your life as a competent, well-adjusted adult, only to be yanked unceremoniously into pimply, tongue-tied adolescence by a random run-in with a ghost from your past. Yet as discomfiting as that is, I have also had the opposite happen to me. Very often I will encounter some previously loathed ex-tormentor from my youth and end up having an easy, enjoyable conversation which pleasantly reminds me that the past is all so much water under the bridge now.
Finally we came to the conclusion of our project, and I was on the phone with him for what I realized might be the last time. As we were wrapping up, I impulsively decided to blurt out the truth. "Say, before you go, I just have one more thing," I began. "This may sound strange but I am pretty sure we went to high school together."
As he tried to jog his memory, I offered this helpful tidbit: "Remember, you were working on a novel that you gave to me to read. With the car? And the secret agent?"
In response, I heard nothing but the screeching of tires.
"Hold on," he sputtered, "I think I almost drove off the road!"
"Sorry, I just wanted to----"
"OH MY GOD! That was you? Oh jeez. That was such a nerdly year for me! I'm so embarassed. I can't believe I made you read that novel."
"No, no, it's okay, it was a pretty good----"
"OH MY GOD! I still can't believe that was you. You must be married now, I don't recognize your last name. You were Aimless N_____ back then, weren't you?"
"Yes! That was me! So you DO remember me!"
"Oh, yes. Believe me. I remember!"
That pointed rejoinder was about the closest we came to actually making reference to the Date That Never Was, after which I laughed nervously and quickly steered the conversation in a different direction. We ended up having a lovely (and hilarious) chat, reminiscing about our high school selves. I had mercifully forgotten, until he reminded me, that there was a brief period of time in which I attempted to portray myself as a postmodern, David-Bowie-worshipping hipster. This was accomplished primarily by walking around school carrying a thick stack of Bowie albums that I borrowed from a guy named Josh. In reality I had no knowledge of any of his music other what the top 40 radio station played - 80's anthems like China Girl, Blue Jean and Modern Love - and I fervently hoped no one would call me on this.
I was glad to hear that he is doing very well now - happily married, with a successful management career and a beautiful brand-new house. Before we hung up, he wished me well and thanked me for the trip down memory lane. "No problem," I said "I just hope it wasn't too painful!"
"Well . . . yes and no" he replied, laughing.
I was glad I said something, but sorry that I missed the chance to apologize. I wanted to tell him that it wasn't him, but my own awkwardness and lack of social finesse that made me act the way I did, and that I was really sorry that I didn't handle it more smoothly. Maybe if I had been a little more adept, we could have continued to be friends instead of avoiding each other's eyes in class for the rest of the year. Mostly I wanted to tell him, however belatedly, that I completely respect and admire how unbelievably brave it was for him, at fourteen years old, to pick up that phone and call me.
Lord knows I never exhibited anywhere near that kind of guts. When I liked someone, I could barely speak to them, let alone call them directly on the telephone to ask for a date. That same year, I had a paralyzing crush on a shy, brilliant senior. And despite the fact that I saw him every day, and hung around the Dairy Queen where he worked at every opportunity, I managed to - after screwing up all my courage for a WHOLE YEAR - exchange one word with him. Literally just one word - one single, utterly mortifying word. But that is a blog for another day.