But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
She came up behind me and put her hand on my arm. The shock almost launched me clean off the swiveling studio chair. With the headphones on and the studio door closed I didn’t hear her come in, and I always kept the radio station doors locked on Saturday mornings.
I’d just done the top-of-the-hour news recap and the station call sign, and she was wearing a cream-colored skirt, dark blouse, and a matching cream jacket with shoulder pads that Troy Aikman would have been proud of. It took me a solid three count with my jaw hanging open to figure out that church had just ended and she had come in on her way back to the cafeteria for lunch.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, I thought you heard the outside door close when I came in.”
It was a logical assumption, the self-closing mechanism on the heavy steel door caused a crash that sounded like a truck accident rattling the building when left to its own devices. But between the sound-proof studio and the headphones playing back my own broadcast, I probably could have been oblivious to a nuclear strike atomizing the parking lot behind the station.
I smiled with a mix of embarrassment that I’d been so caught off guard and confusion that she was standing in front of me, “Actually, with the headphones, I don’t really hear anything but my voice and the music when I fade in the next track. It’s no big deal, I didn’t scream over the air, that’s probably all that matters.” She smiled at my joke, and my heart lit up as a sparkle touched her deep blue eyes. “You look great, did Church just end?” I asked, trying to sort out why she was standing there.
It was her turn to be slightly embarrassed yet obviously pleased by the compliment, “Yeah, we got out a few minutes early. I saw Jamie carrying a tray here from the caf’ and I thought your shift might be almost over. I followed him in to ask you if you were coming to lunch? My parents came up to see me sing Special Music today…”
My confusion took over. Not only was I surprised that she was thinking about my lunch plans, I couldn’t connect the dots on what she was actually asking. In the just-over-two-years we’d known each other, I don’t think we’d had more than five long conversations. Sure, we were in almost every class together for the last two years, but that was true of dozens of classmates.
Our deepest shared history had been as Freshmen in Home-Economics, I was crap at sewing, and she could’t cook to save her life, so we had made a deal to swap projects on the (unsupervised) final; I mixed and poured her cake (even though I’m a crap baker) and she sewed the elastic trim on the bottom, neck and cuffs of my sweatshirt. “Her” cake got an A, “my” sweatshirt got a C. Admittedly the sweatshirt had started on a bad footing and I was just glad to get a passing grade at all. Combined with my A work in the kitchen I finished the class with a B+ and, based on her surprising turnaround on the final, she escaped with an overall B as well.
We never felt bad about the “cheating” as the most economical way to run a home is to do what you do well and let your partner do the things that they do well…and find a balance in the middle. Which was a better lesson to learn than to prove that I couldn’t make my own clothes or that she couldn’t find the balance between salty goo and a blackened sugar brick.
“I…uh…I still have several spots to produce before I go, and I’m not exactly dressed for lunch.” Which was true, I’d been on air since 6:00 am, I’d just thrown on what I usually wore for my early morning weekend shifts, a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt. Not exactly what you’d wear to join someone’s parent’s for lunch; boarding school cafeteria food or otherwise. “And, I have a…personal…project to finish today too.”
Her eyes followed mine to the stack of CDs with the blank DAT tape and the two Maxell 90 Minute Cassettes still wrapped in plastic sitting on top. The artists and albums made their purpose perfectly clear; Peter Cetera, Richard Marx, Bryon Adams, Whitney Huston, The Police, Aerosmith, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Howard Jones…it wasn’t a comprehensive collection of love songs, but all together and in the possession of a high school Junior in 1992, it positively screamed mix-tape for a girlfriend.
“Emily heard a rumor that you had a girlfriend who lives in California…”
Being a small boarding school in the middle of nowhere, I already knew that everybody’s business was everybody else’s business about ten seconds BEFORE that business actually happened. As my relationship began almost a month ago and was hardly a secret, in my confusion I assumed that she was bringing up old news for the sake of having a topic of conversation to avoid an uncomfortable silence.
“Yeah, we met at Michelle’s birthday party. They’ve been best friends since grade school. She lives down near Sacramento.”
Her eyes went downcast, and I wondered if she’d been sent by one of our classmates to sound out the truth of the rumor. In our social group (by which I mean the entire student body of our small high school) long-distance relationships were nearly unheard of, bordering on mythical, like unicorns or frogs that turn into princes. We’d all heard stories of couples from different academies finding true love and joining each other at Walla Walla or Andrews, and anything that sounded even remotely like the fairy-tale was scrutinized and rehashed ad nauseum.
I’d already retold this story two dozen times just this week, and only a combination of Michelle’s eye-witness account and the letter’s I’d already received and mailed from the school business office actually satisfied some of the unbelievers. I decided that must be what this was…another validation mission…like someone hoping to find a dancing bear at a circus.
Her eyes came back up to mine, filled with a question that was touched by something near pleading. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you had a girlfriend who was here at Gem State?” The urgent tone of her voice wasn’t that of someone idly asking for a friend, “Someone you could see every day? Someone you could sit next to in the caf’, and walk to classes with?”
My confusion dropped like a rock. Until that instant it had never occurred to me that I could be anything more than just a goofy classmates to her. I’d already had a couple of (relatively brief) girlfriends, and while I was no ladies man, I wasn’t an idiot either; I was well over the “accept or reject” line and I hadn’t seen this train going this direction until it was already at full steam and completely out of control.
This was exactly what Heather had been afraid of, that once she went home some other girl would swoop in and steal me away. It’s very easy to send a break-up letter when letters and phone calls are all you have. I looked at her for a long time, and I thought hard about what she was asking; about what she was offering. In less than a month I had already spent dozens of hours on the phone with Heather, and I was already finding it…unsatisfying. But I also knew it wasn’t Heather I was dissatisfied with.
“It would be a lot easier, and there are a couple of girls here that I’ve always liked,” I smiled and gave a half nod/half shrug in her direction, “but I promised her I’d be faithful while we are apart. I’d love to have a girlfriend I could see every day…but being a boyfriend who keeps his promises is more important.”
Her eyes went back to the floor again, and I was afraid I’d hurt her feelings. She stood there thinking for a long time, and I was terrified that I would be responsible for upsetting her right before she had lunch with her parents.
When she finally looked back up at me her expression was thoughtful instead of upset. “You’re a really decent guy Nick, it’s one of the things I like most about you.”
Relief flowed through me, I felt that somehow I’d found the right answer to the question, that I’d passed a test I didn’t know I was taking.
“Your song is ending,” she said.
I didn’t understand the metaphor. My face was obviously puzzled. She smiled again and gestured past me to the control board, “your song is ending.”
Recognition dawned and I spun back to the microphone and scrambled to get the headphones over my ears. I gave an outro, referenced the time, and then signed off for the day while introducing the next couple of songs. On air for less than sixty seconds.
When I clicked off the microphone and turned around in my chair, I was alone again in the studio.
[Word Count: 1544]