August 1997, 510 W. 110th St., New York, NY
The five months between getting accepted to writing school and actually starting writing school—April to September 1997—may have been the single period in my life when people thought I was coolest. Nobody had read my stuff, and for all they knew, I was some kind of secret genius. For all I knew, I was some kind of secret genius. In May I quit my job with gusto (“I’m outta here,” I actually said to my amused boss) and playboyed that entire summer, watching the boats bob on Nantucket Harbor while listening to Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space as loud as my Sony Sports headphones would go.
Of course, if I’d really been that cool, then I would’ve had better luck with the ladies, especially with one in particular with whom I’d attended high school and who, in the back of a roadhouse in Ewing, New Jersey, the late-August night we all learned Princess Diana was killed, quoted the entire He-Man introduction flawlessly from memory and made me fall in love with her:
Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, “By the power of Greyskull! I have the power!” Cringer became the mighty Battlecat, and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe! Only three others share this secret—our friends the Sorceress, Man-at-Arms, and Orko. Together we defend Castle Greyskull from the evil forces of Skeletor.
Her recitation easily ranked among the purest, truest music I’d ever heard, even with the noxious backdrop of Central Jersey jam funk from the band we’d come to see. My unconsummated summer love, the girl from my high school math class and for that matter my middle school math class, gyrated along lamely but gamely. “Don’t you dance?” she asked me as I stood transfixed by her and repelled by the funk, and I told her Yes, but only when you’re not looking.
At that moment I had reached a pre-MFA vista from which both childhood and adulthood rolled away from the central point of this beautiful girl from my hometown. I hadn’t thought of Orko, He-Man’s floating buddy, since I was eleven. She had reached my awed inner fifth-grader just as she had inspired my usual what-if-we-got-married fantasy and I imagined our house, our car, our children. Yet as she danced and the five-string bass popped and the wah-wah diddled—hard riff now!— I also somehow knew that while the house, the car, the children would happen for her, they weren’t going to happen with me. I was a chicken, I wouldn’t make the move, and far in the distance, when I was the unfathomable age of thirty-four, most people would have driveways and families, but I would not. When I got to graduate school and most likely well beyond, I would just keep doing what I’d done all my life. I would write some stories and read some books but mostly I would sit around, space out, and listen to records. Four, fourteen, twenty-four, thirty-four, it’s my primary mode. When I’m eighty-four I wonder if I’ll still be writing songs about unrequited love. In a couple days I would start grad school, and my five amazing potential-filled months would draw to a close.
Your voice echoes in my head as I’m lying in my bed and pays no mind to my kind silence or respect for my weakness. It repeats reassurances I know I never heard and sings a song of memory that hasn’t any words. There once was a time when I thought I had a chance, told her when she wasn’t looking was when I danced. I could make her laugh when I talked about the past, but impressing in the present was a little tougher task. I wished upon a fuzz ball that came drifting my way that you would fall in love with me one day, but the wind would not permit it and the wish will not come true. It blew the seed back to me instead of blowing it to you.
By then it will be too late for that because Cringer never became the Mighty Battlecat.
So let’s fast forward to when I’m thirty-four and I’ve rented a car to visit you and yours. I almost get lost on the ride across, but for once I take a right turn at the fork. I’ll know you wound up with someone strong because your driveway is so long and I’ll know that I won’t dress like him and I’ll hope that you won’t rub it in. But injury would be insulted twice if you said the same thing that you said tonight, that you have warmest memories of times forgotten long and gone. Why couldn’t I have been there to remind you all along?