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Monday, February 6, 2012

A First Time for Everything

I must have slept at least fourteen out of the past eighteen hours. I am still dizzy as I wake up, now for the fifth day in a row. I will be on the phone today with my endocrinologist, maybe going in for tests. In the meantime, here is an old memory I have been working on for a while about another dizzy time in my life, almost thirty years ago:

After I finished eighth grade in 1982, I spent the next three summers in northern Michigan studying oboe at the National Music Camp, Interlochen. I had yet to know music was my true calling and I thought of Interlochen as a fun diversion. It was my first time away from my parents. There is a first time for everything.

I did not have a girlfriend but I knew what one was. During the regular school year I attended Cranbrook, a private all-boys school. Girl sightings were rare. The campus of Kingswood, our sister school, was adjacent to us, but the only times we saw actual females were band practice and school dances.

During the first week at Interlochen a violinist my age brushed past me. She was so close I could smell her. I was seated, polishing my oboe clean. As she passed, she dragged her index finger across my knee. She whispered, "I think you're the most talented one here." She turned her head, batted her eyelashes twice more and swiveled the rest of the way to her chair.

I thought she liked me.

Her name was Darlene. She was willowy, freckled, strawberry blonde with a boyish cut, and her smile radiated a natural happiness. She was pretty. She was from Texas and she spoke with a comfortable drawl. She was the kind of girl I imagined spent free time amongst sunny haystacks, chewing sweet ends of long grasses and tying her plaid shirt into knots.

At the end of that rehearsal, I watched her pack up and wander to the corner of the stage. She pointed at me and curled her finger in a beckoning fashion.

I decided to follow her.

She took my hand and led me to the back of the building, shaded by fir trees. She positioned me with my back to the concrete wall. Suddenly, I remembered the girl I had held hands with back home the day before leaving—the girl to whom I had, like a valiant knight, sworn to “wait for her” during the long, hot summer—but that would have to stay in a corner of my mind for now. There is a first time for everything, I thought, and this would be my first kiss. Darlene looked both directions. All clear. She lowered her eyelids to half-staff. Prrrrrooooowww! The air thickened while colors around me dimmed to a warm pink. As she closed in her face went fuzzy. I remember one thing.


Not her. Me. I had eaten a stack of garlic toast at the cafeteria and I had not brushed my teeth. I fought to keep my mouth closed but it didn't matter because she was a light kisser.

As quickly as we had started, Darlene stopped. She looked at her watch.

"Want to do something together?" she asked.

"Sure!" I said, still stung by the novelty I had a girlfriend. "The music library is open. We could listen to a whole symphony."

"We could also go to the Melody Freeze for ice cream." Prrrrrooooooww!

I decided I wanted to go to the Melody Freeze for ice cream.

Back at my cabin I lay on my cot, hands contentedly behind my head, daydreaming of Darlene and how she was perfect. I tipped my head off the top bunk to eavesdrop about another boy in my cabin. He was getting lucky with a girl, too. She also played the violin. She was also from Texas.

What a coincidence, I thought.

Every time I saw Darlene for the next week, she pulled me into side corridors, pulled me to the sides of buildings, pulled me behind trees so we could kiss for a few minutes. The other boy in my cabin played in a different orchestra. When his orchestra rehearsed, Darlene's hand slipped easily into mine and we walked in the open with her head leaning into my arm.

A week later our counselors scheduled a "co-rec" between my cabin and Darlene's cabin. I was excited but Darlene was nervous. When our cabins met by a fire to roast s'mores, Darlene barely moved or said anything. My cabin-mate with the girlfriend from Texas stayed close to me for some reason. Darlene never changed her expression all night from stiff and wide-eyed, like a frozen goat.

Later in the summer, when this doomed love triangle collapsed into its own web of lies, my cabin-mate and I compared stories, timelines and alibis from the previous weeks. "That co-rec," my friend said, digging into a bag of potato chips and offering me one, "was what Darlene called"—he did an impression of her drawly voice—"'Like, the most intense moment of my life so far.'"

Before things soured, Darlene and I attended a live concert featuring Ella Fitzgerald. Interlochen was (and still is) a goldmine for young music students to see famous guest artists up close. In the summers I attended, I heard Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Wynton Marsalis, the Cleveland Orchestra, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and Dave Brubeck perform on the same stage we used every day.

Before we entered the open-air structure that was Kresge Auditorium, Darlene panicked for a moment when she saw someone behind me and—instead of going in—she pulled me behind a tree. "Let's stay outside and listen," she said. "Then we didn't need tickets," I said. "Don't worry about that," she replied. Prrrroooooww!

I decided we would stay outside.

On the lawn we held hands, kissed, danced and twirled about as only a couple of awkward adolescents could while Ella Fitzgerald's voice slipped out the sides of the auditorium and mixed with the leaves in the trees before disappearing into the night sky. In its own innocent way it was—and always will be—one of the most romantic nights of my life.

"Go get us some ice cream," she said when the concert was over.


I went to the Melody Freeze, ordered one vanilla cone with sprinkles for her and one vanilla-chocolate twist for me. I wended my way through the crowd back to the auditorium with ice cream dripping through my fingers in the warm night. She was not where I left her so I went looking.

Around a corner not far away I found her pinning my cabin-mate against the concrete wall.

They were kissing.

There have been a handful of moments in my life where I have felt my heart literally crush apart. This was the first, and there is a first time for everything. A moment later I felt no pain—no feeling at all, actually—and I walked to the nearest trashcan. I dropped both ice creams in, marched back to my cabin, climbed up to my cot, pulled the covers over my head and willed myself to sleep, the melted ice cream turning hard and sticky between my fingers.

The next day Darlene came. She said, "You didn't find me after the concert."

I had no reply.

"Come with me," she said. "Come on!"

I didn't feel anything, but I followed. She fell in step and slipped her hand into mine. I stiffened. I didn't want her touching me. I thought she was dirty.

She ducked into to a building rarely monitored by the counselors that was long and straight.

"Let's go downstairs," she said.

“We’re not allowed down there!”

“Just follow me.”

"What are we going to do?"

"Come quickly!"

I followed.

The downstairs was a long, empty cavern with numerous practice rooms running up and down either side. She took my hand and led me to the empty room in the far corner. She closed the door and faced me with a wicked grin that continued to widen with each passing moment.


I felt nothing.

Prrrroooooooowwwwwwww, rrrrrooooowwwowwwwwww!


"Oh come on," she said, coming to me. She kissed my cheek. Then she kissed me on the lips, slowly. I felt better and kissed her back.

"Eeeeuww!" she blurted and pushed me back. "Why would you do that to me?"


"I know you saw us together last night! I know you saw us!"

"Saw what?" I asked.

"You saw us kissing!" she hissed.

"Who kissing?"


"Oh …"

"Oh that's right!" she blurted. "Why would you come on to me when you saw me kiss someone else?"

"I … I … I …"

"What kind of girl do you think I am? Some kind of slut? You jerk me around for your amusement?" She burst into a fountain of tears.

I couldn't believe I had caused this. I approached her.


I backed off.

During the next hour, I endured what I could only have described back then as psychological torture. I slumped in a corner, eyes wet, while Darlene paced back and forth, turning the last word of my every sentence into a question. If I said, "I'm sorry, I thought—", Darlene would study me, glower and ask coolly, "Thought? Why would you think like that? Thought?" I would respond, "I don't know! I'm just trying to make … to understand …" Darlene: "Understand? Understand what?" She screwed up her face, turned her palms inward and stared at the ceiling. "What are you trying to understand?" Me: "This whole situation." Darlene, screaming: "What do you mean by this 'situation'? What kind of ‘situation’ are you talking about?"

When there was nothing else to say, the silence was thick and the room exuded a rotten, dead air. We both felt like when you pull the plug and let all the water drain from the bathtub.

"Well," she rasped, "I guess that's all there is to say." She was in the opposite corner, arms crossed and eyes wet with real tears.

She left.

At the end of camp, when I was interested in another girl (still keeping the girl at home in mind also, valiant knight e’er was I) there was one final evening where all students gathered in the plaza between the Melody Freeze and Kresge Auditorium. Time to say goodbye.

I sat on a bench with my new girlfriend—a brunette, I think—talking to her about football while she stared off somewhere. We hadn't done anything yet, but my plan was to hug her goodbye and to really milk that hug. Then I would get through the school year writing letters to her about football, stoking the embers of our mutual attraction until we could resume our relationship the next summer where my goal would be to hold her hand.

While we talked, I spotted Darlene a short way away chatting with a group of eager boys. She was the center of attention as always, looking so pretty, laughing and flashing her smile that never failed to radiate natural happiness.

I studied her techniques from afar. There was the "Moi?" look, where she dipped her chin, moved her head aft and pointed at her chest. This was followed by the "Oh-you're-joking" laugh and a playful slap on a boy's shoulder. There was the wide-eyed "No … WAY!" exclamation followed by the "you-just-blew-my-mind" moment of stasis with her mouth agape. During the summer she demonstrated an impressive array of powers as if she were a novice wizard honing newfound abilities.

I asked my new girlfriend, "Would you mind terribly if I asked you to wait for a moment?" (More accurately, I probably mumbled, "Hang on a sec.")

I walked to Darlene and caught her attention as she finished hugging one boy. She surprised me with an expression I had never seen before: Her face melted compassionately. She tilted her head and put her hand sweetly on my face. This seemed at once genuine and contrived. I imagined her Texas drawl to be something rather European and Nineteenth Century: "Oh dear, dearest one. How did we drift apart?" She hugged me, touched her hand to my face again, and went on to the next boy.

I returned to the bench and noticed my new girlfriend gripping the seat, almost crushing the wooden slats with her bare hands. She softly hissed one word, "Darlene,” before the first tentative touch of my own hand atop hers melted the sting from her grip.

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