Monday, August 24, 2009

Sadder but wiser

Forty years ago, at the age of 19, I became sadder but wiser. My first serious romance, an astonishingly beautiful woman, revealed that she had taken up with my best friend, my roommate. It was a soul-crushing moment.

But that's not what I'm writing about today. My first love exploded in a drunken rant of recriminations and words that flew out my mouth faster than my brain could call them back and so it ended. Three people behaved very, very badly and nobody came out unstained. A story you have all heard a hundred times.

So, not wanting to encounter my best friend or my ex-girlfriend, I spent a few days on a couch at the house of some friends, then found an apartment within walking distance of campus. It was a hole, but I was feeling very low and that was what I felt I deserved. I cleaned it up as best I could, and also packed up my stuff at the apartment, working quickly to avoid running into the new young couple of our social group.

It was a very low moment in my young life.

But one Sunday morning, I was down on campus. The school year had not yet begun, but the football players were back, doing two-a-days, as were the student government members, setting up their system for the coming year. The freshmen would not arrive on campus for another week.

As I walked across campus, I saw a rather spectacularly attractive young woman, at a moment in my life when such things mattered more than normally. Not only did I see her, but she saw me and said, "Excuse me, but is there some place around here where I can get some breakfast?"

"Well, the pay caff is right down there," I began, but she interrupted me.

"Yes, I went in there, but it didn't look very good," she said. "I was wondering if there was some place nearby where I could get some eggs and pancakes."

"There's a Pancake House," I said, and began to explain how to find it, but then said, "Tell you what, I haven't had breakfast, either. You want to grab some food?"

So we went out to the parking lot, got into her VW bug and went to the Pancake House. Along the way, she explained that she was in town to visit her little sister, who was one of the student government types. And she told me who it was.

And I said oh, yes, I knew her sister. But I didn't say more because her sister was a kind of a pain in the ass type. She was wonderfully bright, a little overweight, possessed of acceptable but not extravagant good looks, and would have been a nice person to know except that she wasn't a nice person.

She was a bitch.

Her circle of friends were the Social Lionesses, but I could never figure out how she was one of them. She wasn't cute enough, she wasn't socially poised enough, she just wasn't really one of them. And yet she was. She only went out with football players or similar types, and she sneered at those who didn't fit the mold. And I could never figure out what gave her the power to sneer at much of anybody.

I wasn't a popular guy, but I wasn't a schlump either. I never dated a cheerleader seriously, but a couple of them were real friends and I went out with almost all of them on the level of "let's grab a pizza." The one I never went out with was also a Social Lioness, and would have refused to go out with me, had I asked her. Which I didn't. And I also never asked this Little Sister out for the same reason.

So anyway, this Big Sister and I went down to the Pancake House and had some pancakes and sausages and eggs, and she told me about her job as a stewardess for Eastern Airlines and how that worked. This was before stewardesses became flight attendants and protective of their dignity, but she had no problems about her dignity. She was a wonderfully smart, articulate, beautiful woman who was having the time of her life flying all around the country serving drinks and seeing the country.

Since she didn't take life seriously, she didn't seem to care if anyone else did, either.

And we ate and talked and laughed and, as we finished up and paid our tab, I suddenly realized something about this gorgeous woman: She had a car.

So I asked if she'd mind swinging by my apartment. Which was fine with her. We went to the apartment and she helped me lug a large trunk of stuff down to her car and then we hauled down some boxes and she ran me over to my new place and helped me haul it all back in there, and then it was time for her to get back to campus and meet her little sister.

We drove back to campus, found a parking space and starting walking. And as we're walking and talking and laughing and enjoying the sunshine, down the sidewalk comes Little Sister.

And my grasp of the world changed.

Because, when Little Sister saw us together, she actually, physically recoiled, and I saw in her face a look of consternation and horror. And I suddenly understood why she was such a despicable little bitch.

Here I was, a long-haired, geeky guitar-slinging hipster, walking up the quad with her older sister, a beautiful scholar who flew for Eastern Airlines and had everything a woman could possibly want in life.

I realized her big sister had almost certainly been Prom Queen, and was probably National Honor Society as well. She was the Sibling It Was Completely Impossible To Live Up To.

Now Little Sister was at a prestigious college and was a Student Leader. She was on campus early to set up programs, she was a friend of the Social Lionesses, she only went out with football players and other appropriate young men ...

... and here was her goddamn perfect, unattainable Big Sister walking up the quad of HER COLLEGE laughing and joking with a goddam longhaired guitarslinging hippie asshole.

She didn't get it.

She just didn't get it.

She had punched all the right buttons, but the bottom line was that her Unattainable Big Sister was comfortable enough that she didn't give a damn who she was seen with, who she had breakfast with, who she walked laughing up the quad with ... and that there was no way she could ever, ever compete with her Unattainable Big Sister, and that it had nothing to do with anything she could quantify.

I guess I should have laughed in her face, but I didn't.

I stopped thinking of what a bitch she was and started thinking about how much of her life she had wasted chasing something she didn't even understand.

The advantage her sister had was not looks, or brains, or even poise, but self-confidence.

Big Sister could do whatever she wanted to do, hang out with whoever she wanted to hang out with, go wherever she wanted to go, and never fret over what it said about her.

How can you compete with someone who is completely comfortable in her own skin?

"Sadder but wiser"? Oh, yes. I was sadder but wiser.

Because now I had to view this contemptible little bitch with sympathy, and compassion, and I had to understand her insecurities and her weaknesses.

Damn. Who knew that breakfast with a stewardess could turn into something so complex???


ronnie said...

Beautiful slice-of-life. Thanks for sharing it.

Do you know whatever came of Little Sister, by any chance?

By the way, you can be tolerated within the Social Lionesses even if you are not physically perfect - if you are amusing to them by being funny (read: able to come up with viciously funny zingers about the lesser beings). I'm guessing Little Sister was such a sort.

Sherwood Harrington said...

If I didn't know that she attended Wellesley instead of Notre Dame, ronniecat, I'd suspect that Little Sister grew up to be the current US Secretary of State.

Jean said...

Very thought-provoking, Mike. Thanks for sharing it! And amazing how some memories stay with us even after so many years. This incident must have made such a strong mark on your mind.

I wonder what made you remember it today...?


Mike said...

ronnie -- no idea what became of her but I'm quite sure it had something to do with a nice house and some bon-bons. Some of the women I knew, and knew best, went on to do interesting things, but it was very much an atmosphere of "earning your MRS degree" and Little Sister was firmly within that group.

Jean -- While I wasn't at Woodstock, it was the year I was 19 and there are all sorts of other 40th anniversaries to be marked which come to mind because of the attention paid to that one. I'm in the process of sorting the ones that might be of general interest from the ones where you really, really had to be there. Stay tuned. The utter lack of responsible behavior typical of 19 can make for some very interesting stories.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

My medium-small women's college was wonderfully free from garbage like Social Lioness status and the like. At the time we complained that our relationships with men were ridiculously artificial - they crossed town, checked us out like library books, returned us and drove back to the U. We often heard that the advantage of a women's college was the lack of pressure to compete either with or for men within the school itself, and while i scoffed at the time, i think there's truth to that. It preempted a lot of what you describe here, and i'm glad!

Hope Little Sister's overachiever abilities weren't too much of a handicap in gaining some self-knowledge. Life offers plenty of opportunities for growth and some people take them.

Sandra said...

Great story.