Ever so often a person comes into my life who has the ability to influence my world view, my view of myself and my way of relating to the world. These people are like comets, in that they hang around for a season and then leave, usually returning once or twice (if I’m lucky) over the course of my life (at least to this point). This week, one person comes to mind. She’s the one person who helped me begin my healing and growth process in the aftermath of my obsession with my second crush. She helped me renew my faith in love and romance, not to mention my faith in myself. All while going through her own hard times at home and with her significant other.
It was the summer of ’87, in between Mount Vernon High School and the University of Pittsburgh, the summer I worked for General Foods at their Tarrytown location. I became friends with another Operation Opportunity intern in the midst of my descent into post-second crush depression. E was going into her senior year at MVHS. She was an inch shorter than my obsession, which was probably the first thing I noticed about her. She was pretty and thought of herself as a pretty nerd. At least she wore slacks and jeans (unlike my second crush, who was always in a skirt). That much about her I appreciated.
E was going through a hard time herself. Her parents were in the middle of a nasty divorce, which included custody arrangements. Since she was seventeen, she could make up her own mind about which parent to live with. Except that she couldn’t. It was between White Plains with her mother and younger brother and Fleetwood with her dad. “And the commute to school would be horrible,” E said more than once about living in White Plains. She’d also just broken up with her White boyfriend. The relationship was decidedly about race, according to E. He apparently digged her because she’s Black, and “his parents never liked me with him,” E said to me once.
When I finally told her about crush #2, my feelings for her and the overhead conversation that made me sound like a retarded eunuch, E got this angry smirk on her face. “You don’t need her . . . she’s triflin’,” E said. It was the first time I ever remember hearing that term. “Triflin’!,” I thought. It hit me that E was absolutely right, that the object of my infatuation was superficial in her outlook and triflin’ in her interactions regarding me. It didn’t ease my pain, but it did make it easier to express my anger.
E and me spent quite a bit of time talking over lunch at work, talking after work and hanging out in White Plains and in Fleetwood. I got to meet her mother and her younger brother, and I met her father once. I learned quite a bit about her eventual Class of ’88, where a fight similar to the one between our Class of ’87 valedictorian and salutatorian was unfolding. This time it was a White male and a Black female battling for the valedictorian prize. E thought that this fight had something to do with race, giving me more insight into what happened between our class’ top two students and how we, their classmates, unconsciously took sides. E wasn’t a fan of either person, but especially the White guy and his best friend. They were all pretentious in their own ways. As for college, E had planned to apply to Wesleyan and a few other small liberal arts colleges and Ivy Leagues. No safety schools for her!
We spent quite a bit of time talking about relationships. And she spent a portion of that schoolin’ me on finding a balance between being nice and being assertive when it came to women. “We like guys who aggressive, but not too aggressive,” she’d say. If E started a sentence with, “You’re a nice guy Donald, but . . . ,” I knew where she was headed. Apparently being nice and smart wasn’t enough. I needed to be confident in and comfortable with myself, relaxed in my own skin. I had to assert myself, to let a woman know how I felt about her. I couldn’t be “too revealing,” though. That would be “scary.” I learned more from E about women in six weeks than I learned from all of my female classmates and my mother in eleven years. Combined. E had picked up my spirits at a time when I needed it the most. I just hoped that I’d done the same for her.
We kept in touch for a couple of years after that summer, mostly through letters, occasionally rendezvous-ing to talk in person. But after a stress-filled postcard from E at Wesleyan in April ’89, I didn’t have any contact with her until April of ’01. She seemed the same but different. Mostly concerned about money and worried about the future in general. Yet she was also someone who hadn’t forgotten me or what I had been like fourteen years earlier.
E was the most important person I met in ’87. At a time when I was no longer interested in finding new friends, she quickly and easily became my friend. Despite all of the ups and downs that would follow that bittersweet summer, I think that I will always remember E for doing what none of my classmates and so-called friends were willing to do — listen to and get to know the real me. To E, many, many, many thanks.