I was attractive in 1989. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, and the photographic evidence of the era provides no clues – only more bewilderment. Terrible center-parted hair, badly tinted coke-bottle glasses, braces that I couldn’t seem to get shut of, and a wardrobe consisting entirely of either white concert-style t-shirts or pastel plaid short-sleeve button-ups, topped with a Members Only jacket five years too late and a gray fedora. In theory and on paper, I should have been a circus clown, and instead, four different girls found me attractive at some point in that year.
The last of those was an anomaly about which I hadn’t thought in years, maybe decades, aside from the snark at one of her pageant titles. Because she was a pageant girl, a cheerleader for a decade before we got together, the sort of high-achieving queen-bee sort that, in an exurban Southern high school setting, might have been the Platonic ideal of “who should I not be with, ever.” And yet, we dated from early October of 1989 through January of 1990, as I was filling out my college applications and getting ready for the inevitable future for which I’d waited my entire life.
Looking back, I think it was an experiment for both of us. I was probably the very last thing she would have thought of going out with, especially since she’d just had a long-term alpha-dog sort of boyfriend who had gone off to Auburn a year ahead of her. I never dated from my own high school, and was still reeling from my exposure to the wider world in June coupled with the reversal of personality and fortune around my common-law girlfriend at the time, and after being in limbo for a month, I called up this girl who had expressed a mild interest at one of the academic events of the summer and gave it a shot.
We went to movies, I think, but by virtue of where she was located it was tough to see anything that started after 7 and still get her home on time. It was a prolonged drive deeper into the sticks from home, on two-lane roads that gloried in the name “state route”. I barely met any of her friends, and…well, I didn’t have that many for her to meet. My friends had all graduated the year before and I was at hammer and tongs with most of my senior class, and I was keeping score at scholar’s bowl practice as ‘me versus the world’, so there really wasn’t anyone to whom I could introduce her. Or wanted to. We sniped obliquely at each other about our odd-couple matchup, as I sat on her bedroom floor desperately trying to figure out how to solve the even-numbered problems in my AP Calculus textbook.
I guess with thirty years of hindsight, I was just marking time until I got out and got on with my life. This was an attempt to see what would happen if I’d had a more normal high school experience. Small pond, low ceiling, call it whatever you like. Ultimately she didn’t care about Doctor Who or Casablanca, and she was an Auburn fan, so we didn’t really have much to talk about besides school. And we never once had a word of conversation about “what happens next.” By the time we split up – well in advance of Valentine’s Day, and in a way that ensured I wouldn’t be seeing any more of her, which you can get easily down south when Dad taps on the window with a flashlight – I still didn’t know for sure that Vanderbilt wasn’t going to be happening. But once that was revealed, it was a sort of echo: the dream of escape had run on the rocks, so I was going to have to settle for something nearby and make the best of it.
Would that I’d had the sense to break up with undergrad after four months.