Quest for fire

What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done for a girl (or guy, if that’s what lights your candle)? When have you done something so contrary to your normal routine — so against your very sense of self — that a miniature you hovered over your shoulder shrieking, “I can’t believe it! What are you thinking?” But you’re not thinking. You’re so blinded by a crush, a flippy feeling in your stomach, an intensifying flame fueled by desire and adrenaline, that in that moment, you’d do anything for that girl. Anything at all.

Despite my reticent nature when it comes to romantic pursuit, I’ve often made that hot leap into the unknown. Sometimes the results were grand, sometimes cataclysmic, sometimes inert. I submit some of my more notable follies, beginning with adolescence and leading up to the present. All are true—though names are changed to protect…well, me.

Exhibit A: Samantha. 1986.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve managed to shake off the jokes about high school marching bands and band camp. Mostly. Perhaps you won’t believe me when I say that I grew up in a bizarro town where the band ruled, the football team was a huge snooze, and people came to Saturday games mostly to see the halftime show. But our band was great. We numbered well over a hundred, about a fifth of the school, and becoming a member was an initiation into the coolest gang around.

Learning a halftime show is excruciating work, beginning in August and lasting until after the snow flies, trying to perfect the act in time for the post-Thanksgiving regional competitions. Until your body memorizes the music and the movements around the field, you commit to constant study of scores and charts that look like flip books of chicken scratch. You spend long, humid afternoons practicing out on the field, waiting for your squad’s turn to execute a part of the maneuver, holding up a saxophone in front of you for hours at a time. I loved every moment of it.

My love was less for marching band, however, than it was for our drum major, Samantha. She had absolute command over scores of unruly teenagers. When she got up on the podium and raised her hand, we literally snapped to attention. Looking back on it now, I can hardly believe she was only two years older than I, because she seemed far more powerful and wise. Was I crushed out on her personally, or only on her role as our leader? When I was fourteen, it was a meaningless distinction. For Samantha, I’d gladly bake in the sun wearing a wool uniform, black gloves, and a goofy hat.

The finale at our major competition that year was the “Jupiter” movement from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It was an exceptionally hard number, with small circles of marchers (“planets”) unfurling into a long, straight line that descended the breadth of the field. We finished on one knee, with our horns upturned to the stands. (OK, it sounds hokey, but go listen to “Jupiter” right now and come back. Awesome, huh?) Forming that straight line had been the bane of our rehearsals for months. How can 120 people, looking neither right nor left, carry a perfectly straight line? Only through total precision — everyone arriving at the right place at the right time, everyone taking the mandated 22.5-inch steps. Samantha had rehearsed us hundreds of times, and on that December night, we nailed it.

As I marched closer to Samantha’s position on the podium, as I knelt in front of her, I saw the fierce, proud tears in her eyes and knew we must be flawless. I saw in a flash that the marching season was over, that I no longer would have an excuse to talk to her every day, that it would be agony without her in my life. Even though I had not yet figured out that I was gay, I knew unequivocally that I loved her. What could I do?

Over the winter, I found out that Samantha had been elected captain of the softball team. So that spring, I went out for softball.

Nothing could have been stupider. I had no interest in softball—didn’t even know the rules. After ten years of youth soccer, I lacked hand-eye coordination. Still, following weeks of pleas, my confused parents relented and bought me cleats and a glove. I happily went to run wind sprints in the gym with all the other hopefuls, waiting for the ground to thaw enough for tryouts.

The conclusion of the story is obvious enough: she went on to captain the Varsity team, I straggled onto the JV squad as shortstop, and the whole season sucked. But at least I had something to talk about with Samantha.

Exhibit B: Eva. 1992.
Following a soul-searching summer during which I read a lot of Adrienne Rich and finally came out to myself, I returned to college and somehow ended up in bed with the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen. Eva, five-foot-seven and 110 pounds, was lithe and voluptuous in all the right places. She had long, honey-colored hair she wore braided down her back, full red lips, smiling eyes, and (forever my Waterloo) impossibly elegant, slender fingers. Why did she choose me? I still don’t know. I once made a crack about how she always got her way with people, and she offhandedly remarked, “Well, the beauty helps.” Pride didn’t make her say that. It was just the truth; it was empirically so.

We’ve all known people who get up in our personal space, who make us uncomfortable just by their presence. They’re usually a little handsy, overly intimate, and we can’t wait to get away. Are you thinking of that someone you know? Now instead, imagine that it’s Eva. She’s touching you while you’re talking — maybe just putting her hand on your arm, or leaning against you in a booth at the coffee shop. Drawn into her charismatic orbit, you start spending more time together, craving her touch. Before you know it, you’re at her run-down apartment under a Mexican restaurant, your head resting in her lap while she plays with your hair. Oh, and half a dozen other women are in the room, and whether or not they know it themselves, they’re all waiting for their turn.

At the end of one of those nights, as all Eva’s admirers got up to leave, she pulled me aside and asked me to stay. Oh, my. I always imagined the Parisian salons of the 1920s unwinding the same way. In those days, I kept a fairly meticulous journal, but the only entry for that week reads: “A new heaven and a new earth.”

But after a few weeks of bliss, Eva tired of me. She began ignoring me in favor of Maggie, a lumbering redhead with a serious drug problem. Maggie was everything I was not: enigmatic, erratic, and dangerous. She treated Eva badly, and Eva seemed to like it. Mystified and hurt, I retreated somewhat, but not entirely — because through my affiliation with Eva, I seemed to have met every other lesbian on campus. That eased the sting a little.

One night about a month after our breakup, shortly after going to bed, I answered the phone. It was Eva. “You’ve got to help me,” she said. “Maggie has been on a bender for days—she’s out of her mind. I’m really afraid she might hurt me this time. Will you come over and stay with me?”

(You can see where this is going, right? I’m about to do something dumb.)

A smart person would have gone over there with a friend or two, stayed up playing cards and helping Eva forget her troubles. A smart, responsible person would have made sure Eva found an advocate, someone who could help her negotiate the partner abuse that is the dirty secret of the lesbian community. But I—well, I put on jeans and a sweater over my pajamas and went over to Eva’s place.

She looked ragged, tired, her luminous beauty already shadowed by worry. She didn’t want to talk; she only wanted to feel safe enough to get some sleep. So I very chastely held her under the covers, and she was unconscious almost immediately. I lay there for hours, trying very hard not to be aroused, watching her sleep.

Then the apartment door opened, Maggie saw my jeans and sweater in an untidy pile at the foot of the bed, and that’s when the shit hit the fan.

From that episode, I learned a very important lesson: Some dykes thrive on drama. Oh, and Eva and Maggie ended up getting married the following year.

Exhibit C: Leigh. 2004.
The first time I saw Leigh, she was leaning over a pool table, lining up a shot. The lamp above her head cast a corona around her white-blond hair. Her Stella Artois sat neglected on the bar, beading with condensation, as she concentrated and sent the ball hurtling into the corner pocket. She stood up and our mutual friend Nick led me over to introduce us. Her blue eyes momentarily left me speechless.

“Um…nice game.”


After that less-than-auspicious meeting, I saw her periodically at the parties where our social circles overlapped, growing progressively more intrigued by her cool reserve. Still, when she called to ask me out, I was taken aback. She had noticed me, too?

We planned to meet at a restaurant in Andersonville, Chicago’s lesbian neighborhood. Not for coffee, not a casual meeting at a club, but an actual dinner date. It felt charming, gracious, almost anachronistic. I could probably count my number of traditional “first dates” on one hand. In the exhilaration of preparing for the evening, however, I fluffed one crucial detail: it was the coldest night of the year, over thirty below with the wind chill, and my cab was late. Really late.

Make that two crucial details: I didn’t have Leigh’s cell phone number. She was, no doubt, sitting in the restaurant at that very second, assuming she was being stood up. The thought horrified me. How could the date fail without even happening? I called her house and left a message, in case she checked her voicemail. I called Nick, but he didn’t pick up. I called another cab, which also didn’t come. I called out curses to the heavens while pacing up and down the living room rug, increasingly frantic.

Time to get out of panic mode and into problem-solving mode. Train? No. I’d nearly freeze to death waiting on the elevated platform, and even then it would be a fifteen-minute walk to the restaurant — probably long enough to finish the job. Bus? No. The #22 was unreliable even in the best weather. Cabs were obviously a hopeless proposition that night. Only one option remained: to drive myself. But the roads were devilishly icy, and worse, I didn’t actually have a car. Strikeout. I’d never have another chance with Leigh.

Then a ridiculous thought dawned on me: I could borrow Henry’s car. Henry was my neighbor, an easygoing guy who had just bought a top-of-the-line Audi. The Audi brought out something ruthlessly protective in him — I could no more ask him for his car than I’d ask a new mother if I could use her baby for a pickup game of rugby. The request itself would be offensive and stupid. But it was either that or miss the date. So I asked him for the car.

Shockingly, he said yes. He knew how much Leigh already meant to me. Which of us was dumber — him, for handing over the keys to his pride and joy? Or me, for driving a car that cost more than three times my annual salary through icy, unplowed streets? I white-knuckled the Audi down Clark Street, trying not to let the moment’s obvious symbolism clobber me: I wanted to rush to her, but if it was going to work with Leigh, I’d have to take it slow.

Parking a few blocks away, I walked gingerly over slick and empty sidewalks and entered the restaurant. I was almost two hours late. To my complete amazement, Leigh was there. She even smiled and said simply, “I knew you’d get here when you could. Are you OK?”

Who, honestly, would respond that way? What kind of self-confidence — what generous nature and open, forgiving heart — would you need to say that? If our positions had been reversed, after a half hour I’d have stormed out, hurt and angry. The evening would have ended with me at home in sweatpants, drowning my humiliation in a pint of Cherry Garcia or a stiff bourbon — maybe both. But because Leigh gave me a chance, we had a marvelous date. The conversation flowed effortlessly. It just felt right. After driving her home, the Audi and I floated home on a cloud.

This month, Leigh and I celebrate our third anniversary. It turns out that her kindness is matched only by her intelligence and delicious wit. She’s smokin’ hot, too.

So…what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done for a girl?

11 responses to “Quest for fire”

  1. MarleyFan says:

    Although I will have to give your question some thought before responding, I’ve got to say that your post is brilliant. You have the skill to captivate, and keep me leaning forward. But,there is one problem, one area of which I’d like to express concern: it was too short. Please think about making this a two (or five maybe) part series… Extraordinary!

  2. Rachel says:

    Thanks, MarleyFan. Heaven knows I have made enough foolish decisions for a multi-parter.

  3. Tim Wager says:

    Okay, I know that the drama, tension, and relief of your first date with “Leigh” as related here would have been completely derailed, but . . . didn’t you think to call the restaurant? The whole time I was thinking, “Call the restaurant!” I’m very happy it worked out, though, and you’ve done a really nice job of relating the woes of pitching woo.

    My stupid acts in the name of a crush swirl in the main around a protracted, impacted “affair” of sorts from college. While she slept off and on with a revolving band of characters, I stood faithfully by and was there for her meager attentions when she grew tired of each of them. “It didn’t work out with that guy you picked up at the party where we had a date to meet, but you made out with him and took him home instead of even talking to me? Oh, please please tell me all about it while I try to think up a way to rationalize to myself why I’m even speaking to you.”

  4. rach:

    i’ve known you for 15 years and i never knew you played in a marching band. that is so sexy. i’m going to try to find a marching band playing Jupiter right now to download. damn!

    the dumbest thing i’ve ever done for a girl? go to a religious university for college. then again, it’s where i ended up meeting half my lifelong friends, foremost among them ssw, so i can’t swear it off altogether.

  5. Stephanie Wells says:

    The question has brought up too many embarrassing memories to publish here, but I LOVED reading your desciptions of the crushes. (I have to say, though, joining the softball team isn’ all that dumb or humiliating, even if you were horrible. It’s not like you loaned her a bunch of money knowing she was a total deadbeat, or like Tim, listened patiently to all her romantic stories about other people, or became the sound technician on a theater production when you had zero knowledge of anything electric or mechanical . . . all of which I’ve done in the name of crushing out, and that’s just the tip of the Iceberg of Shame . . .) Most of all I have to say: HooRachel for more Berkowitz on TGW in ’07!

  6. Jeremy says:

    Yeah, I agree–more Rachel in ’07. This was such an entertaining post…

  7. PB says:

    OK first, loved this!! I agree more, more , more (uh, am I looking dumb crushing over a post?)!!!

    Next, in answer to your provacative question . . . cooked. Made a quilt of hundreds of 1 inch squares patterned to look like the brooklyn skyline at dawn. Spent way too much money. Called after dumping and getting engaged and not telling and then groveling. Making out in a crowded museum. Inventing a flood to lure. Taking the long way home. Watching movies I hated. Giving up potato salad. Writing on a train all the way home from . . .
    ah, the secrets and smiles you illicit, nice work Rachel.

  8. i know you meant elicit, pb, but i like the slip better …

  9. PB says:

    damn, when are we getting a spell check/ freud check on this thing!!

  10. i love the idea of a freud check.

  11. Stephanie Wells says:

    Okay Pandora, you’re up. Way too many enticing and mysterious references in that comment for your next post not to explain them.