Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Last Love Letters in the Attic

Dear Old Friend - Patty Griffin (mp3)
Keep You Happy - Tift Merritt (mp3)

So I'm in my mom's attic reading through a box of notes and letters, most of which my first girlfriend sent me during my junior year in high school and the summer that followed...

When I had that first legitimate romantic kiss, I was 17. Seventeen years before a hand held, or a long embrace, or the warmth of a (fully clothed) body next to mine. That I was deprived of such simple joys for so long only serves to remind me, as I work daily with boys at all levels of social intelligence and experience, that the urges for a physical connection are often so overpowering you wanna ram your skull through a wall. But more on that next time.

With Karla, I had no itch to move past our comfortable PG-rated relationship. She was such a SuperChristian -- leader of her church youth group, on her church's session, president of FCA, yada yada -- that I was all but positive she wasn't interested in going any further, which suited me fine. That "She's So High" song? In my mind, she was literally high above me, like a good mile closer to earning her wings.

By the end of that school year, however, in spite of being physically overjoyed and being with a girl who seemed to be about the sweetest and kindest person I might ever meet, everything started to feel wrong. Romance wasn't a road I'd ever traveled before, so I didn't know where the car trouble was comin' from, but I knew it was somewhere in the damn car.

Karla graduated and was named salutatorian and earned a full scholarship to a nearby college, where she'd play soccer for them. A few weeks into summer I headed to Martin, Tennessee, for Governor's School. She sent me letters while I was gone. I'm pretty sure I wasn't quite so faithful with my writing anymore.

By the time I got back, I was taking her out for a date so I could inform her that I didn't want to date her anymore.

I'd actually prayed to God that Karla would break up with me first, that she would by good luck or divine intervention take the awful responsibility for ending this wonderful thing off my shoulders.

She fought so hard not to cry when I told her. I can still see it in my mind, the furrow in her brow as her oh-so-intelligent brain tried to make sense of the words coming from my mouth. This announcement had come quite literally out of the blue, with no real warning other than my failure to write her much while I was away. I'd never once even tried to share my fears about us, because they seemed too dark, and I wasn't remotely sure I understood them myself.

We hugged at the end of that last official date, and it was the kind of hug neither of us wanted to end. I think she was hoping if she held me long enough, I might return to my senses. I think, somewhere, I was hoping for the same thing. But it just never quite happened.

She kept begging to meet with me, and we continued talking it out over the phone. We shared another month of dates consisting of sitting awkwardly across tables, sipping awkwardly on sodas, holding awkward hands, as she grappled with the insanity of my resolution. Why the hell would I end something that never seemed anything shy of a cheesy Disney movie? What happened to me at Governor's School? Is that where the end had begun?

How do you tell someone you love that you don't want to live in a Happily Ever After when you're not even 18? How to you make sense of the desire to experience all the shit life can sling at you to someone who embodied everything that seemed right and good with life and love and religion? It hardly made sense to me, so how was I supposed to explain it to her?

I kept telling her I didn't deserve her, that she was too good for me (and I still believe that, in a sense). And she kept responding, as calmly and un-blustery as she could, "Why are you really doing this?" And what she meant was, If I'm so damned stupendous, why isn't there anything I can do to change your mind?

My senior year was precisely what I asked for and deserved. Full of rejection from lots of girls who were well beyond my range, full of angst and uncomfortable cluelessness about the social scene my classmates seemed to understand so well. It often felt like I was in rooms with Venezuelan runway models and their handlers. I didn't speak their language, and they didn't much give a shit whether I could or not. I wanted a social education; I got a social education. And I failed the class.

Karla, through all of this, continued to call me and occasionally write me, only served to twist the knife I'd stuck in my own chest. But I couldn't go back. There were plenty of times I wanted to, and it wasn't solely out of stubbornness. It was because, no matter how I sliced it, and no matter how I replayed all of it in my head, we were never going to be together forever. And if it wasn't going to be forever, why torture one another for even another minute?

Almost 20 years later, I don't regret it, and I don't think I made the wrong decision, although I certainly wonder how I could have done what I did better, more humanely. But even without regrets, those letters... feel heavy. And I weep for those two kids who loved each other so much, if only for a short time.

"Dear Old Friend," which was released only on the compilation 13 Ways to Live, has sat comfortably as the "Most Heartbreaking Song I've Ever Heard" since I first heard it four years ago. "Keep You Happy" is from Tift Merritt's most recent CD, Another Country, and I just found out we're practically related... well, OK, that's exaggerated. But her music is great!


jed said...

wonderful entry. i'm 17 again and i am happy. Bob can verify that. patty griffin...what can you say? thanks Billy.

Billy Bob said...

Thanks Jed. Great seeing you the other night. Had we met once before, or am I delusional on that one?

And yes, my love of all things Patty G. is beyond reason or explanation, and she's one of very few artists I get upset when someone else says they don't like her.

Anonymous said...

Shout out to Jed here, as well. Thanks for coming to my gig. Agree with you about Patty, Billy. If I hear people say they don't like her, it makes me suspect their character.