In honor of Valentine's Day, I give you this story. It's not candy or flowers, but if you're still waiting for that one great kiss, this is a promise: it's coming.
In middle school, each time I kissed a boy I hoped I would swoon, just like a heroine in a romance novel who practically faints with passion the second the hero gently presses his lips to hers.
Not once did this happen to me. In fact, my first kisses had more in common with the strep tests I routinely had to endure at my pediatrician's office than they did with the love scenes I read in books.
First of all, there was no "gentle" involved. The boys I made out with during middle school seemed to have read an instruction manual in which the words "apply extreme force" were repeated multiple times. These boys should have been permitted to put their lips to a girl's only after informing her, "I promise, this will just hurt a little bit." What I remember about sixth, seventh and eighth grade parties was getting ready for them by applying lip gloss and recovering from them by wiping it off. Of my chin.
And then came J.
I'm only identifying J by the first letter of his first name because I'm pretty sure there are legal issues involved in revealing anything that would too clearly identify him, but if you ask me, he really ought to have a business card that says, "Want to learn to kiss? I can teach you."
J was older than I was (a junior? a senior? who remembers? who cares?) and the truth is, I have absolutely no idea how we came to spend an entire afternoon back during the Reagan administration making out in an empty classroom of our high school. Didn't I have play rehearsal? Didn't he have track? Didn't we both have homework? And how did we even know each other? There is not a single interaction with J in my memory bank that predates our hours spent in what was not a brothel but my honors English class, the room in which I spent innocent afternoons memorizing "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" and taking fantastically difficult tests on Edith Hamilton's Mythology.
And given my experience with kissing, wasn't it odd that I would have even wanted to meet a boy for a secret rendezvous? Surely I could have gotten just as much pleasure from a parentally approved trip to the orthodontist. But for whatever reason, I did meet J and there (no doubt beneath a poster of some RSC production of Hamlet), I kissed him.
The joke when I was in college was that sex is like pizza: When it's good, it's great, and when it's bad, it's still pretty good. Well let me tell you something: kissing is not like pizza. When it's bad, it's horrible, and when it's good, it's mind blowing. Kissing J after kissing so many terrible kissers was like discovering that all these years, you'd been watching television with the sound turned off. Suddenly, this incomprehensible, frustrating experience that everyone's been raving about makes sense. You're like, "Oh, Seinfeld really is funny."
J lifted the act of kissing to an art form. His kisses were just as swoony as the books had promised, and after we finished making out, my chin was as dry as it had been when we started. How we parted that afternoon, what happened between us the next day (were we even friends? were things awkward between us? did anyone find out what we'd done?) remains marvelously hazy. Only the blissful kisses are crystal clear.
I wish I could say that all of my kisses after J were earth shattering, but unfortunately there were a few chin lickers here and there. I didn't mind, however. Having been to the mountain top, I knew the real deal when I found it.
Happy, happy Valentine's Day. Here's to flowers, chocolate and (most important!) seriously swoony kisses.
To read the first chapter of The Darlings in Love (a book in which everyone gets at least one good kiss), click here.
When people hear that I write novels for teenagers, they often respond with a question that I find ever so slightly disingenuous: “How can you remember all that stuff?”
I really shouldn’t accuse complete strangers of lying to my face. After all, it’s hard to think of something to say when someone tells you her profession (“You’re a lawyer? That must be so…interesting”), and people might feel that a simple, “Cool” will make them sound un-literary. So “How can you remember all that stuff?” could just be a way of making conversation with someone whose occupation sounds dull or bewildering or, I don’t know, weird. Assuming one of these to be the case, I smile and shrug and say something along the lines of, “Just lucky, I guess.” Since I teach high school, acquaintances often assume I simply write about my students, and here too, I don’t disabuse them of their notions.
But when people ask me, “How can you remember all that stuff?” what I really want to say in response is, “How can you not?”
It seems to me that there is, quite simply, no more vulnerable, terrible, memorable time of life than adolescence. Burdened with many of the responsibilties of adulthood (complicated romantic relationships, demanding friendships, scholastic responsibilities that will impact your future), you have none of the perspective that adulthood brings—the knowledge that broken hearts heal, that friends who take without giving are not really friends, that there are many paths to happiness, that the life we live is rarely the life we plan. Before we learn these lessons, each setback feels permanent, each disappointment epic.
It is one of the blessings of adulthood that this is no longer the case. A few years ago, I was invited to a party for a friend whose trendy radio show was launching a TV series. The party would be filled with people who (to me) are hugely famous, celebrities whose stories I’ve listened to and admired for years. I was giddy with excitement about being invited and spent the days before the party impressing (annoying?) my equally awed colleagues with my invitation.
And then my son got a stomach virus. The day of the party he wasn’t deathly ill, but he spent the afternoon throwing up and by evening he was running a significant enough fever that I couldn’t see leaving him with a babysitter. I called my friend and wished her luck, told her I’d be thinking of her and asked her to call me the next morning to tell me all the details. Then I settled down to an evening spent nursing a sick pre-schooler.
I was certainly sorry to miss the party. But it was a fleeting disappointment, and the next morning I was more relieved that my son was better than I was sad about not having gone out the night before.
Had I been in high school and had the same thing happened, I think I would have died. I certainly would have wished for death, just as I wished for death (or at least a new life in the form of the witness protection plan) when boys broke up with me, when my mother wouldn’t buy me the pair of jeans I wanted (needed), when I had knock down drag out fights with my best friend.
The beauty of adulthood, for me, is that while terrible things do happen (marriages break up, people get laid off, life-long friendships end), we are, for the most part, equipped to handle them. I’m not denying there exist horrors that lay low even the most capable of adults, but these are horrors. Real horrors, not parties sick children prevent us from attending or designer jeans our incomes prevent us from purchasing.
Writing about teenagers (for me), means not just remembering but being willing to dwell in that place where life felt like walking a tightrope without a net. When the boy I liked was the last boy I would ever like, the friend I fought with was the last friend I would ever have, the college rejection letter was the finale of a promising academic career.
I believe that while many people choose not to remember what those things felt like (and who would blame them?), few have truly forgotten. Sure, the name of the girl who threw the party where you first kissed some guy in the closet might have escaped you, but has the feeling of emerging from the closet (everyone knowing what you just did and wondering about it)? If it has, I guess you’re lucky.
If it hasn’t, you might want to write a book.
To read the first chapter of The Darlings in Love, click here.
Back in the dark ages (before Al Gore invented the internet, when children spent their unsupervised afternoons doing all manner of unspeakable things), I was a voracious reader of about twelve whose tastes had outgrown children's literature despite my being (for all intents and purposes) still a child. Nowadays, I could have gone to my local bookstore and spent days (if not weeks) perusing shelves marked "Young Adult," but at the time, once we'd read Tiger Eyes, Flowers in the Attic and the dirty parts of Forever, those of us who wanted to keep reading had to navigate the world of adult literature.
Hard as it is to believe, parents back in the 1970s and early 80s really didn't care what their children were reading, so my mother didn't blink an eye as I tore through Danielle Steel's canon, a world in which beautiful women suffer life-threatening car accidents or the horrors of concentration camps only to be rescued from poverty and hideous fashion options by rich, titled men who cannot live without them. Later, I discovered Judith Krantz and learned that fat, awkward, poor girls grow up to be stunningly beautiful secretaries who catch the eye of their millionaire bosses and find themselves richer and more powerful than they'd ever dreamed possible. When I wanted a self-made heroine, there was always Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance (because it turns out being born into servitude can't stop you from building your own empire). And what girl who came of age during the Carter administration could possibly forget Lace, a novel that presented its readers with a question as profound and eternal as "To be or not to be?": Which one of you bitches is my mother?
By the time I was a freshman in college, I'd not only lost my taste for the writers who'd entertained me through high school, I looked back on my passion for them with the kind of shame most people reserve for drunken, late-night hookups or spur-of-the-minute Vegas weddings. But now that I'm a little older (and a little less precious), I find myself thinking of those books with fondness.
Nowadays all the books teenagers are reading are about teenagers, and I'm sure that's for the best. It's probably comforting to read about kids out there going through what you're going through. And really, why does a twelve-year-old need to know about day-into-evening wear or the demands of owning a winery or to believe, as I did well into my twenties, that your dashing boss putting his hand on your thigh is a good thing?
Still, I can't help but think back on the pleasure of being a teenager who spent all of her time escaping into adulthood. Instead of being comforted by the thought that there were other teenagers out there who were as bored and self-loathing as I was, I was promised there was world awaiting me just on the other side of eighteen, a realm as glorious as heaven, where all my suffering would be rewarded and I would be rich and beautiful beyond my wildest dreams.
It's not quite accurate. But it sure got me through the hard times.
To read the first chapter of The Darlings in Love, click here.
Why didn't Nancy Drew and Ned Nickerson make out more? (Or how I learned to stop worrying and love romance)
The summer before third grade, I was obsessed with Nancy Drew. My mother had remarried, and we'd moved from Manhattan to Long Island. The town (in which I knew no one) was a fairly typical suburban one except for one thing: its tiny, old-fashioned library, a wooden building located about half a block from the train station.
The lonely new girl on the block, every morning, I'd get on my bike and ride over to the library. There, I'd return the Nancy Drew book I'd taken out the previous day and check out a new book that would last me until the next morning.
Those books were a life raft on which I floated all through the sea of that lonely summer. If you need a refresher course, Nancy Drew is the daughter of Carson Drew, a widower lawyer with an admirable sense of justice. Cared for by the family's devoted housekeeper Hannah Gruen, Nancy (amateur sleuth) is somehow utterly adored by both her father and Hannah but never told she cannot pursue evil criminals, even those whose nefarious activities extend to attempting to murder her. Nancy (a lovely red head) has two friends, Bess (pretty, plump, timid) and George. Lest you be inclined to make something of George's physical strength, bravery and boy's name, the author gave all the girls boyfriends who drop in and out of the story, occasionally serving as escorts to dances or joining the girls for picnics and outings, but inevitably standing on the sidelines when there's serious sleuthing to be done.
I loved Nancy, Bess and George and I loved the books. Though I was a strong reader, I wasn't an especially talented detective, and this made me the ideal audience for a mystery. Each plot twist amazed me. The solution always came as a total shock. Every evening, I'd finish the last page shaking my head in awe. That Nancy Drew. She was so pretty. So clever. So perfect.
When I grew up, I was going to be just like her.
But despite my passion for the books and their heroine, there was one thing about both that nagged at me ever so slightly. Though only eight years old, I couldn't help wishing that Nancy was…well, more into Ned Nickerson, her "special friend." Ned was super into Nancy, that much was clear. He always wanted to hold her hand, to dance with her, to take her for drives. Just to be clear, this was all in good 1930s fun, so Ned never did anything untoward like grind against Nancy or ask her if she wasn't ashamed she'd be going to college a virgin. No, Ned was just a nice, wholesome boy who wanted to stroll by the lake with his girlfriend. Sadly for him, while they were walking in the moonlight, Nancy would inevitably spy something shiny and cry, "Oh! A clue!" and the next thing you knew, Ned would be cooling his heels in the car while Nancy, Bess and George discovered the whereabouts of a sunken treasure.
Nancy Drew still remains one of my heroines. As a die hard feminist, I love a plucky female protagonist who's not distracted by a dazzling smile and a well-cut tuxedo. And why shouldn't Ned Nickerson stand aside when there's work to be done? If you have to choose between making out with a hot guy and saving an innocent family from being swindled out of its inheritance by a con man…well, I hope that none of us would hesitate to stop walking hand-in-hand by the lake and get down to some serious sleuthing.
That said, I think my eight-year-old self was onto something. After all, why shouldn't Nancy get to make out with Ned and solve crimes? It's not like you can do either one twenty-four/seven.
The same summer I was reading so much Nancy Drew, I was traveling into Manhattan every other weekend to see my father. He introduced me to another crime fighter, this one a man who seemed to have no trouble fighting crime and making out. In fact, he barely had time to save the world what with all the ladies he was seducing. Let me tell you something: If Ned Nickerson had been into James Bond instead of Nancy Drew, he would never have had to wait in his car. Not alone anyway.
Maybe Nancy had something to learn from Mr. Bond.
I know they've recently updated Nancy Drew for a new series. I can't imagine trying to wrap my head around an unfamiliar incarnation of my old friend, but from what I hear, Nancy's got a cell phone now. And I'm sure her roadster's been replaced with a razor scooter or maybe an eco friendly hybrid. While all those changes are certainly ones I can get behind, there's only one improvement I'd really wish on Nancy. And it's not that she'd start drinking her martinis shaken, not stirred.
It's this: Now and then, when she and Ned are walking along or star gazing or just having a friendly chat, I hope Nancy puts a finger on Ned's lips, shakes her head and says firmly, "Stop talking and kiss me already!"
It's what James would do. It's what I would do. And I like to think it's what today's Nancy Drew would do too.
What's the craziest thing you ever did to get a boy to like you?
Well, here's what I did: I moved to Zimbabwe.
Okay, we've all done dumb stuff for love. Like maybe you've pretended to like Arcade Fire (whoever they are). Or watched the Superbowl. Or spent way too long trying to whip up the perfect batch of chocolate chip cookies. But getting your very own certificate of yellow fever vaccination? Seriously?
Seriously. Only the story is even more humiliating. And complicated. But I'll try to be brief.
All through college, I was completely in love with this boy (we'll call him S.) And S was completely in love with me, too. Only not in the will-you-be-my-girlfriend-and-walk-off-into-the-sunset-with-me way. More in the it's-late-and-we're-at-this-party-together-so-let's-hook-up-again way. Still, despite his never quite being able to commit to me, I know we were destined to be together. We had crazy chemistry. We were great friends. You know all those songs and movies where the guy doesn't realize that the girl who's been there all along is the one? That was us. It was only a matter of time.
After I graduated from college, I got a cool internship in the middle east, and while I was there, I couldn't help noticing that my being thousands of miles away from where he was living made S. more interested in me than he had ever been before. In all the letters he wrote (this is all pre-internet, btw), he really missed me.
And I couldn't help wondering: Does absence make the heart grow fonder?
At some point during that year, I mentioned in a letter to S. that I might be going away again shortly after I returned to New York. He was shocked to hear this. He was really upset to hear this. He'd always kind of thought…well, in true S. fashion, he didn't come right out and say what he'd always thought, but you didn't have to read minds to know that what he'd always thought was: Someday, Melissa and I will be together.
When I got back to NY, S. (after years of being unable to commit) became my boyfriend! He loved me. I loved him. And so, I began looking into doing development work in the third world.
"What?" you shriek. Why would you do something like that? S. had finally confessed his eternal love for you. The two of you were happy together. Why would you do make plans to leave the country?
Well, I'll tell you. I had the suspicion that a love like ours (so intense, so real) needed a little…something to survive. And I had an even stronger feeling that that something was distance.
So I found a year-long position in Africa.
I knew nothing about Africa. I mean, I could find it on a map. And back in high school I'd totally rocked out to "We Are the World" and everything. So I wasn't, you know, against Africa. But I wasn't exactly dying to go there either. Still, I had my relationship to think of. How could S. and I maintain our passionate commitment to each other if I remained in the continental US?
When I left for Harare (capital of Zimbabwe), S was brokenhearted. He cried when we said goodbye. Though he understood my deep, enduring commitment to improving the lives of the people of Africa (?!?), he would miss me desperately. I was brokenhearted also. At the time (and I am wincing as I type this), the movie Dracula had just come out, and the tag line for the movie was "Love Never Dies." When a friend quoted this to me (in reference to my relationship with S.), I wept.
Long story short, a year later I returned from Zimbabwe. Just as I'd dreamed, S. was more in love with me than ever. We made plans to drive across the country together to the west coast, where we would live happily ever after. We joked about getting married. We talked seriously about getting married. Those years of S.'s being unable to commit to me had become an amusing footnote to the epic story that was our eternal love.
Except now that he and I were in the same time zone, S. started to seem a lot less in love with me than he'd been when I was leaving on a jet plane. And over the next couple of months, the reason that he seemed less in love with me was revealed: it was because he was less in love with me. In fact, four months after I'd returned to the U.S. and six weeks before our planned road trip, S. confessed that he was having serious doubts about our relationship. It wasn't me. It was him. Or it was me. Or it wasn't me or him, it was us. Or at least us on the same continent.
Bottom line: When he hit I-80 heading west, he'd be traveling solo.
The takeaway from this should probably be: Don't try to get a guy to like you by doing something you don't want to do. But the thing is, I had an amazing year in Zimbabwe. I met people who changed my life, I got to spend time traveling around a really exciting continent, I learned (a little bit of) another language. And years later, I sometimes find myself narrating a story that begins, "Back when I was living in Zimbabwe…", which gives me some serious street cred with people who might be inclined to dismiss me as a vapid jap. I never regret my experiences there, and the fact that I only had them because I wanted to get some guy to fall in love with me…well, like John Lennon says, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
So I guess what I'm trying to say here is that if you're thinking about doing something to get a guy to like you, by all means go ahead. Oh, not something dumb like losing your virginity to a jerk or lying to your parents so you can go to a party with a bunch of drunk kids. But if we're talking about downloading songs by a band you've never heard of or reading a book you think will make you look cool, I say, do it!
The bad news is: It's not going to work. The good news is: You just might get to go to Zimbabwe.
To read the first chapter of The Darlings in Love, click here.
Okay, so the other day I met a woman under circumstances I won't bore you with because the point is not how or why we met. The point is this: I hated her. She was pushy and nosy, and when she didn't get information she wanted by (strongly) hinting to me that she wanted it, she lingered in the vicinity of my conversation (with someone else) in order (it seemed to me) to see if she could learn what she wanted to know by eavesdroping.
She was loathsome, and I loathed her.
But (and here's where things get sticky), she wasn't completely unlike me. I mean, I hope that I am not oppressively pushy and nosy, but let me be honest. If someone were to complain about me, that person almost certainly would not begin by saying that I'm...oh, aloof. Or disinterested.
Do you get where I'm going with this? My point is that if you were going to list my worst traits, you just might say that once in a while (and I'm sure this is only under extreme circumstances, but there you have it) I can be a wee bit on the pushy side. And while we're on the subject, I am occasionally interested in having information that is none of my business. I would like to believe that I would never go so far as to linger in the vicinity of a conversation that a) people had made clear they did not want me to hear and b) was none of my business, but if we are being completely honest, I must here simply say that one should never say never.
To cut to the chase: I hated this woman and her pushiness and her nosiness because she was just enough like me for me to hate her.
I don't know if you've had this experience. Perhaps you have. For example, say you are vaguely interested in being slightly more popular than you are and you meet a girl who is desperately climbing the social ladder. You might once or twice have ditched your friends for a boy and you meet a girl who's got her best friend's boyfriend on speed dial. And what happens is you see a grotesque reflection of yourself in the other person and you do not feel sympathy. You do not feel empathy. You do not feel compassion. You feel hatred.
Empathy means understanding. Empathy means deep understanding. Ultimately, empathy means understanding that is so deep, it results in one's recognition of shared humanity with another person.
Shared humanity. Versus, in my case, hatred.
There is no word for the opposite of empathy, but a woman I know and respect recently provided me with one. Here it is:
Contempathy: the strong dislike or loathing born of recognition of the self in the other.