January 17, 2006

Of first loves and talk show hosts and Canadian nachos

Steve from Wahpeton is married.

The wedding happened a few weeks ago, but the announcement ran in the Fargo Forum yesterday. My eagle-eyed friend Jennie e-mailed me the article, which included the usual laundry list of bridal attendants (where did the term laundry list come from? Who makes lists for washing their clothes? Why not just wash whatever is in the hamper?).

Sadly, the online version did not include a photograph. Jennie assured me he looked pretty much the same, plus a few pounds.

So you might be wondering, "Who is Steve?" "What is Wahpeton?" "Why is Monica writing about this?"

Steve was my first boyfriend.

Wahpeton, North Dakota (pop. 8,586) is 57 miles south of Fargo, which is where I grew up.

I am by no means sad that Steve is now married. After all, I'm married. But for some reason the newspaper article prompted me to remember a story that had been tucked away into the deep recesses of my mind.

I was 14 years old, and had just successfully survived my junior high years of being socially awkward, physically unattractive, and aesthetically challenged.

Yes, everyone goes through this phase (at least everyone who grows up to be someone of substance), but I insist that mine was more unfortunate than most. Here were some of the components of my "look", circa age 13:

1. Chunky metal braces with colored ties, neon pink rubber bands, and two lisp-inducing biteplates.

2. Enormous red plastic glasses; a larger version of the type worn by daytime talkshow host Sally Jesse Raphael.

3. Two words: Spiral perm.

4. A wardrobe hand-selected by my mother, a well-intentioned but hardly fashionable Polish immigrant with a distaste for jeans and a penchant for floral leggings.

5. Approximately 30 pounds of excess "baby fat" or "awkward teenager fat."

Where was I going with this?

Oh yes, Steve from Wahpeton.

By the time I turned 14, I had made a few improvements. The braces had been replaced by a lisp-inducing retainer I never wore (I still feel guilty over this). I'd swapped my glasses for contacts. The perm had grown out just enough to allow the possibility of hiding it in a ponytail, and I'd even lost a little weight.

My parents tried to encourage my self-sufficiency and social development by sending me to "intellectually stimulating" summer camps. Creative writing camp came a year after a disastrous experience at French camp (social awkwardness + picky eating habits + draconian camp policies = a week of solitary fasting in which on ne peut pas parler anglais).

So I showed up for a week of creative writing camp at the International Peace Garden a little gunshy (did I mention the infestation of caterpillars and yellow jackets at French camp? Quel malheur!), and certainly not expecting to find a boy who liked me.

Just for the record, North Dakota is the Peace Garden State. It says so on our license plates.

Years later, when I left North Dakota, I realized how obscure the Peace Garden truly was. In case you're not acquainted, it's a big garden on the Canadian border, celebrating the peaceful relationship between the U.S. and Canada. Really, if you ever want to cross the border without incident, this is the place. You could have a trunk full of illegal immigrants, genetically modified vegetables, and homemade explosives, and the border guard would wave you through with a smile and a "Beautiful day, eh?" or "Beautiful day, dontcha know?" depending on whether he was Canadian or North Dakotan.

Everything at the Peace Garden is built in perfect symmetry. There is a gift shop on the American side, and a gift shop on the Canadian side with the exact same items priced in Canadian dollars. Exciting stuff, folks.

The camp isn't actually in the Peace Garden, it's a couple of miles down the road. But why split hairs?

A strange and wonderful thing about camp: I was surrounded by people who didn't know me, people who didn't remember my wretched hair or Sally Jesse glasses.

They actually gave me the benefit of the doubt. I could, potentially, be cool.

I also had the "hip" factor of being from Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota.

Never in my life has being from Fargo brought me prestige the way it did at creative writing camp. I was sophisticated. I was urbane. I lived in a town that had a Perkins, an Embers, and two Fryn' Pans.

At least in those days, no self-respecting girl went to creative writing camp expecting to meet boys. Sure, there were always a few boys in literary circles, but they usually wore all black, drew pentagrams on their notebooks, and wrote disturbingly vivid stories about death and dismemberment.

Steve wore clothing that came in many colors. He listened to R.E.M. and Radiohead. He was the only one in the class who knew all the lyrics to "Under the Bridge" and the names of all the major Romantic poets. He watched the Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy. He was sarcastic and witty, yet disarmingly sweet.

Our days at camp consisted mostly of lengthy writing workshops in a musty non-air-conditioned library. I can't remember a single thing I wrote or learned that week, but I'll never forget Steve's short story about his grandfather. His grandfather used to sing "You Are My Sunshine" to Steve, who bravely sang the first verse when reading the story to the class. His voice was shaky, but his sincerity and openness were mesmerizing. The grandfather died at the end of the story, and Steve got a little choked up. Just when things were getting emotional, he always looked right at me.

I'm sure some of you are gagging at the saccharine quality of that scene, but he was exactly the kind of person I needed to know at that point in my life.

The other girls in my cabin insisted that Steve liked me. I suspected that it was all a horrible joke, and they would soon reveal that they had been mocking me all along.

On the penultimate day of camp, we loaded a bus to visit the actual Peace Garden. Steve invited me to get a snack at the Canadian snack bar, and suddenly everyone else disappeared.

We were alone together, eating Canadian nachos (Velveeta on Tostitos). I noticed the girls from our class spying on us from the American snack bar across the garden. My vision in which I was clever, articulate and charming quickly dissipated. I sat there, terrified, speechless. Maybe I asked him what Wahpeton was like, but I doubt I came up with anything so profound. I may have asked him what his favorite radio station was. It was painful.

That night, the camp put together a dance. Even though it was a camp for young musicians, artists, and writers (i.e. outcasts aplenty), it was the same dance-in-a-can that we had skulked in the corner of throughout junior high: Smoke machine, colored spotlights, disco ball, and classic songs from the likes of Right Said Fred and Paula Abdul. It was 1992, after all.

The dance was a classy affair, to be sure.

The lights dimmed save for the disco ball, a noxious puff of fake smoke filled the air, and the opening instrumental line of "Everything I Do, I Do it for You" began to play. The dance floor cleared, which was fine because I had been skulking in the corner anyway.

But there he was. Steve, wearing a purple B.U.M. sweatshirt and shorts, asking me to dance. It was my first dance with a boy. His hands were just a little sweaty. He felt warm and soft. His hair smelled like Pantene Pro-V. I never wanted that song to end. Much to my chagrin, it was the last song of the night. The lights came up and I found myself staring right into Steve's eyes, feeling like a completely different person than I had been just a week earlier.

The relationship ended poorly, just like the many relationships that followed. We wrote letters for a few months after camp, charming each other with our witty handwritten prose. We had one fleeting afternoon visit that fall, during which I experienced my first kiss at a Wahpeton movie theater. I don't even remember how it ended, except that I'm pretty sure I messed it up.

Through high school and college, I dated a fair number of people representing a range of archetypes: the all-around loser, the brooding theater geek, the hardcore programmer, the disillusioned football player turned evangelical Christian, the clarinet player who picked me flowers from his mother's garden.

When I met Sam, there was something familiar about him. I even told some of my old friends, "He reminds me of Steve from Wahpeton, except with long hair."

I didn't find my soul mate when I was 14, but the archetype was dead on. Sweet. Sincere. Witty. Well-read. A talented writer with a gift for dialogue. I secured myself a bearded version of this man, one from Minnesota, and so my dating story ends much as it began - except our life is intentionally devoid of Bryan Adams' influence.

I doubt I'll ever talk to Steve again; instead, this story is my strange little tribute to him. He knew me at an awkward point in my life, gave me confidence in myself, and let me know that sensitive guys are out there and potentially interested in girls like me. I'd track him down and thank him, but he would probably find that creepy.

Instead I'll share the story with people who don't know him, and hope that you had one quarter as much fun reading it as I did writing it. Cheers.

No comments: