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Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Columbus Day Lesson In Betrayal

Author in senior year of high school.

On the Friday of Columbus Day Weekend of my senior year in high school, I bought a bus ticket from Providence, Rhode Island to Saratoga Springs, Vermont.  It was my first trip to visit my boyfriend since he left for college.  We met three years earlier during the summer before I started tenth, and he started eleventh grade.  We both attended prep schools; mine was in Providence, his was in Saxtons River, Vermont.  Much of our romance was an epistolary affair. This was an age before cell phones.  There was a phone he shared with all the other boarders on his floor. His use was timed and very public. At my end, my family required that I reimburse my mother for all long distance calls.  Even with my part-time job and allowance, I had little money for phone charges between Rhode Island and Vermont; I had to pay for gas if I wanted to use my mother’s car.  Letters were cheap. They brought with them the excitement of delayed gratification and suspense.  We were both writers. It was our mileu.  To this day. the complete compendium of his letters to me still sit in a shoe box, tied with ribbon, in my basement. To give it a label? Steve was my first love. I was fifteen, he was sixteen. Our love was real, it was immediate and we sure we were the first to have discovered its power. We believed that Shakespeare almost had it right.
Our letters served to sustain us until we saw each other on holidays and over the summers. When we could, we played tennis, went biking, listened to music, watched movies and basked in having time to be together. For that reason, the fact that he was going to Skidmore 
and that I was still in high school did little to alter my understanding of our relationship. The summer before he went off to college, we talked about the “what ifs?” He suggested that he might want to start seeing other people. It seemed implausible since I was confident of his love and fidelity toward me.  I asked him to just tell me.
In retrospect, there were cues, of course. I was too understanding, trusting, accepting to believe that the small cracks I was seeing over the summer before he left were anything. Least of all, did I believe that they were indicative of his changing state of mind toward me. 
Steve met me at the Saratoga bus station in a little VW bug he said he borrowed from someone. I arrived in Saratoga on that Friday evening around ten pm. My parents were at our home on Martha’s Vineyard. They had grown accustomed to my close relationship with Steve and thought little of me spending a weekend with him. It was my first time on the Skidmore campus. While I knew it had recently gone co-ed, somehow, I didn’t expect to see the masses of women, everywhere, women. I think the enrollment consisted of only twenty  percent male students that year. Steve was in a co-ed dorm. As I recall, his room was part of a quad; four rooms shared a small common living area and two bathrooms.  He wanted to know if I wanted to go out and party. I can remember being put off by that. After a four hour bus ride, I wasn’t keen on going off to some crowded beer bash when I hadn’t seen him for six weeks. I told him so in a less direct way.  We ended up lying in each other’s arms and talking about all the things that had been happening in our lives.  I recall getting up at one point to take a shower. The shower head was very low and hit me in the chest.  I wondered what about a taller person, where did it hit Steve?  It was hard to get the shampoo out of my hair. I came back to lie beside him in his extra long twin bed. He told me how good I smelled. How good I felt. Like a cat, I remember arching under the pleasure of his words and touch. Then, he casually said in passing, there is someone I think you would like to meet. She’s a sophomore dance major and I have been getting to know her.  Maybe we can spend part of the day with her tomorrow.  A frisson of suspicion too strong to stifle ripped through me. “And who is this person?” I asked.
I think what stays with me most these forty years later is that he honestly did not seem to think it would matter to me. Later, I reflected on a conversation we had the previous Christmas when we were talking about morality and incest. He told me he was not sure that morality was anything more than an arbitrarily imposed mandate.  For example, if he said he had kissed his cousin who was visiting from England. Was that wrong? Did that make him a bad person? I thought he was positing an unlikely example. Later, I would wonder if he was telling me he had kissed his British cousin while we were still in a monogamous relationship. It felt like he wanted to push and explore the boundaries of what was the accepted societal norm.
All of this raced through my head while I was lying next to him, suddenly growing painfully aware of my near nudity. Suddenly wondering who was this person beside me.
Steve answered my question, “I’ve been seeing her. But I know you will like her and we can all hang out in the morning. When you get to know her, you will like her, too.” What, he was proposing I be the add-on? I believe he expected me to warm to the idea of being a close-knit threesome. I told him that I needed to go home.  Immediately.
He accused me of being immature, of being stuck in old-fashioned scruples that didn't apply to him.
As I got dressed, wearing many more layers than the room temperature dictated, I asked him to take me to the first bus out of there in the morning. Yet, he held me while I cried and ranted at his betrayal and his unkindness.  He said simply, “I didn’t want to hurt you, I thought we could all be friends.” 
Six hours later, I rode back to the Saratoga station in the dancer’s VW beetle.  My face was red and blotchy from crying.  
He kissed me. Later, I would label it “Our Last Kiss.” Sitting on the hard bus seat, I angled my head to look out of the tinted bus window, I could see the young man I had loved so much. He had both of his hands jammed in his jean pockets and a flannel shirt thrown over an old dingy tee that said Vermont Academy. I watched him until the bus was just about out of view of the Beetle. In a action that bespoke of dismissal, I saw him toss the keys, then catch them with the alternate hand.  He turned to head toward the car and go back to his dancer.
I cried and slept on the ride back to Providence. My shortage of Kleenex mandated that I sleep more than I cried. When I arrived at the Providence Bus Station with twenty dollars and my backpack  I had no way to get home. Almost everyone I knew was away for the weekend and I couldn’t afford a cab.  I used up all my dimes phoning people. Finally, I tracked down my best-friend who arrived in less than fifteen minutes. What kind of small, sweet irony that she, too, had a Beetle.  As she left me off in front of my empty house, she asked,
You sure you don’t want me to stay? I can change my plans... Really?” 
“Not at all, I’ll be fine.”
I hugged her.
In the silence of the empty house, I wailed. I lamented the end that I should have seen coming.  Instead, I had walked head on into betrayal for the first time. Steve seemed to want to couch it in terms of his avant-garde moral code. "No," I told myself, "this was not alright, no matter how he tried to spin it. He chose his dancer over me. "
This was not my first brush with betrayal, but, at the time, it felt like the biggest one. I can still remember observing that there was this small, still part of me that remained detached and apart from the part that was grieving. I promised myself that I would write about this someday. I was embarrassed to have been so naive and trusting.  Still, I reminded myself to pay attention to the details, because it would be those details that would bring my story to life.
And there it is, a gem of a truth, the heart of a writer can bear no waste.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             


  1. Funny how some memories remain crystal clear, even after so many years.

  2. Sometimes, the years seem to distill our most painful memories into their very essence, don't you think?

  3. Agreed. Sad to say, some become more painful over time.