Friday, November 3, 2006

My Old Flame

I got a phone call last week. From my first girlfriend (call her GF1; clever pseudonyms are not my strong suit), telling me of the death of a mutual friend's mother. Aside from the sad news, I was glad to hear from her. I hadn't heard from her in 10 years, and it had been more than 20 years before that since I'd had any contact with her.

I met GF1 at the same Christian summer camp I mentioned in this post, the summer before my senior year of high school. She was outgoing and fun, and we connected almost immediately. Looking back, high school summer camps are virtual hothouses of teenage romances - we were away from home and the normal 'authorities' in our lives (ie, our parents); it was summer, the weather was beautiful, and we had lots of free time. Much of which we spent on the beach, um, fairly scantily clad. And, as I said, we hit it off pretty quickly. By mid-week, we were an 'item'.

I had never had a girlfriend before. Not that I never wanted one, you understand; but between my own adolescent male awkwardness and certain adverse appraisals of my desirability on the part of the young women of my hometown, such a relationship had not yet materialized.

But none of those constraints applied with GF1. I didn't have a reputation as a 'nerd' with her, and her social status wasn't threatened by association with me. Just being in her presence, knowing that she liked me, was like a powerful drug.

Toward the end of the week of camp, we had an 'outing', I think to a play in the nearby town. GF1 and I worked out to ride in the same car, and we used the opportunity to, uh, get to know each other better. I was lost in a blissful fog - she liked me, she really liked me!

The last couple days of camp, we snuck off together whenever we could, until finally the day came when camp ended and she went back to her town and I went back to mine.

Her town was a few hours' drive from mine, so we really couldn't get together during the school year. Or even call each other; in those days, long-distance phone calls were expensive enough that my parents weren't about to allow even a few minutes a month for me to call her. So we sent letters back and forth, professing our undying love, and scheming for any way that we could possibly get together. There was a camp reunion over Christmas break, and we both went, so we could be together again for a day or two.

When I graduated the following spring, she managed to get the use of her parents' car to drive over for my commencement. I really relished being able to show her off to my friends, and to all the girls who had never deemed me worthy of their romantic attention.

My family moved to another town that summer, so I was sort of adrift, trying to get a summer job in a new town, and not having much success. My college orientation was in the early part of the summer, and my dad and I hit upon the idea of finding a job and staying the summer in the college town. Lo and behold, I found a job, and a place to stay (a little seedier than I was used to, but I didn't know any better).

That whole summer, then, when I got out of work on Friday, I'd throw all my possessions into a backpack and hitch-hike from the college town to GF1's town. She arranged for me to stay with the family of a mutual friend (the same one whose mother died last week), and we would spend weekends together all that summer.

I went off to college in the fall, but GF1, a year younger than I was, was still in high school. I hitch-hiked over to see her for a weekend in the fall, but she was oddly evasive toward me. Finally, she told me that it wasn't going to work with me being in college and her still home in high school, and we needed to break up. I was stunned, and crestfallen, but I suppose that, somewhere in the depths of my brain, I could admit that it was better this way. Still - she was my first serious love; I can remember my friend's mom (the woman who died last week) consoling me, and telling me that, whatever happened, I would always remember GF1 fondly just because she was my first love. And I can say that that has been the case.

After that, GF1 and I lost track of each other. She dropped in to say hello once when I was in college, and she was visiting a friend at the same school, but she spent the whole time talking to my roommate, and never said a word to me. Pretty strange.


Fast forward to 10 years ago. Molly and I are planning a getaway weekend, and I propose a bed-and-breakfast in a small town near to GF1's hometown. It's a beautiful area, on Lake Michigan, and I could show Molly around a bit, for having spent so many weekends there way back when.

At one point, we stopped at a grocery store, and there was a small group of people talking in the parking lot, near where we were parked. One woman was talking more than the others in the group, and there was something very familiar about her voice. I studied her face, but if this woman was GF1, she had put on quite a bit of weight, so it was hard to tell (well, so had I; besides which, my hair was a lot shorter than she'd have remembered me). Finally, I interrupted, saying that she reminded me of someone I knew long ago, and sure enough, it was her. We spent a few minutes catching up, then we both had to be about our business, so we traded addresses and promised to get back in touch.

Molly has mostly forgiven me now, but she has never let me live down the irony that I got back in touch with my old girlfriend when my wife and I were on a 'romantic getaway weekend'. (sigh) Sorry, sweetheart; I promise you, it wasn't intentional.

GF1 and I tried a few times to get together after that. Once, she had some business in our town, and we planned to meet for lunch, but a freak snowstorm blew in, and she wound up not coming. We traded Christmas cards for a few years, but then we lost track of each other again. Until she called last week.


edit - I really should tell you 'The Rest of the Story'; I couldn't figure out at first how to fold it into the main story without changing the focus of the story. It's not all that crucial to the story, but I think if I just laid it out there, it would wind up being distracting. And yet, telling this part of the story adds some texture; so, I'll make it a 'footnote'. . .

GF1 is black. I don't say that to impress anyone, or to shock anyone, or to elicit any particular response from anyone. It's a fact, is all - it is what it is.

And yet, the world we live in being what it is, it can hardly help but elicit a certain range of responses. My Dad was not pleased; he and I had some of the nastiest arguments we ever had over my relationship with her. When GF1 came to my school for my commencement, it created a minor stir. Some people were uncomfortable just because she was there, and my relationship with a black girl upset them. Some of my friends were eager to meet 'The Black Girl', as if merely being in her aura would confer some grace on them. And everything in between. Some folks just wanted to touch her hair (this was waayy Up North; some of my classmates had never seen a real, live black person). . .

The thing is, to me, her blackness was just a personal fact about her, not some huge determinative marker. She wasn't 'my black girlfriend', she was just my girlfriend. She was a very cool person just for who she was, not because she was black (or, as some would have it, in spite of it).

Her race (or mine) didn't have anything to do with why we broke up, but if we had continued on together, we would sooner or later have had to deal with the racial issue (or, more precisely, the inter-racial issue), just because the world around us wouldn't have let us ignore it, try as we might have.


So now, I can tell you that Molly tried to dissuade me from approaching her - "If you're wrong, it'll be, 'oh, they all just look alike.'"

And, once we established that we were who we thought we were (or however you say that), she turned to the rest of her group and said, "This is that white guy I told you all about!"


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