This 73-page post is a compilation of the eighteen excerpts from my unpublished Darien High School memoir that I posted individually to my website between May and November of 2018. To repeat, almost all names are changed, along with some personal details.
Episode 1. Pam
The summer between my junior and senior high school years, I went to numerous parties held by a collection of classmates who had in common good academic performance. They called themselves the “Group.” I figured they didn’t give themselves a more distinctive name to avoid admitting they’d formed something as mindlessly stereotypical as a clique.
A member of the Group named Perry and I shared a love of books and an obsession with girl psychology. There was, as well, his Anglophilia, except he expressed it in sarcastic references to “Limeys” and exaggerated imitations of posh Englishmen.
We talked frequently on the phone, and often he came to my place or drove me to his. Darien High students either didn’t read or concealed their reading. Perry read, absorbed, then propounded to anyone who would listen, which was me. He called me “Boswell” to his Samuel Johnson, a subservient role I accepted, considering my limited access to books, for the sake of educated conversation.
We made jokes that no one else would find funny, or rather, that everyone else would ridicule as “intellectual.” Bewildered by the grammatical rules we were learning in Latin class, we enacted the arrival of a messenger before some Roman general during a battle. The messenger got so tangled up in ablatives, declensions, conjugations and overall sentence unruliness that he couldn’t get out the critical information.
Naturally, I was the messenger. “Great speed, troops over hill, um, come?”
“Out with it, Boswellus.”
“Come over hill troops rapidly.”
“Are you saying troops are our way coming, or I should troops going command?”
And people wrote tomes on the decline of the Roman Empire.
With high school senior year almost upon us, several members of the Group planned to meet the 4:29 train from New York. Pam, a popular girl whose family had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of junior year, was on her way for a visit. She’d been one of my readers. When we stopped reading homework assignments, she’d used to select a poem by Leonard Cohen or E.E. Cummings. I couldn’t have said whether my pleasure was more in the poems or her renditions.
The day of her arrival, Perry told me on the phone, “You know what it’s going to be like. The girls are going to scream like crazy the moment they see her, and we guys are going to stand around in total embarrassment.”
I said, “Then why don’t we join them afterwards?”
“We’d be missed. At least I would be. I can’t speak for Limeys.”
Another Group member was Doug. At 4:15, his “Dougmobile” pulled into our driveway. It was a dilapidated vehicle that rode low and jarringly over every bump in the road and had a grubby plastic interior that left me wanting to wash my hands each time I got out. As I eased into the back, I discovered Doug had already picked up his girlfriend, Priscilla, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, as well as Perry, beside me in the back.
Doug turned back to me. “Ready to say hi to Pam?”
“Speaking of special occasions,” I said to Perry.
He’d recently made progress with a girl I knew only slightly. They’d been to a couple of movies together, and she’d joined him at a Group party.
“What?” he said, since I was waiting significantly for him to ask.
“I had a feeling you’d forget. Didn’t you tell me a certain someone has her birthday tomorrow?”
“Ouch. Shit. Driver, go by Stoler’s so I can buy a card.”
“No can do,” Doug said. “We’ll just make it to the train as it is. Perry, man, you wonder why it never works out with you and girls.”
Priscilla turned around to console him. “Don’t worry, Perry. You can pick up a card later and give it to her at school tomorrow.”
Perry continued to mutter curses.
“Here we are,” Doug announced, as the car swerved to a curb and jerked to a stop. “4:29 on the nose.” The other car, which was all girls, had already arrived, and they greeted us as we climbed the steps to the open-air platform.
“Where’s this train?” Perry muttered. “We could have stopped off and gotten a card.”
“Perry, you fool, we’d never have made it here even if the train was due tomorrow.”
“Shut up, Doug.”
Doug’s chortle carried all along the platform.
I thought I heard the first clickety-clack of a train just before a girl yelled, “Here it comes.” The train drew closer, thrusting air before it like a hand sweeping aside everything in its way. I stepped back. Brakes hissing, the train came to a halt and the doors slid open. The girls shrieked, “Pam!” and rushed over to the car where she’d emerged.
Doug called, “Well, hello there,” and ambled over to the crowd of girls screeching and jumping in rapture.
Perry hung back with me, saying, “See?”
As we walked back to the cars, the clamoring girls circled around the star.
“Pam, you haven’t changed.”
“Such a tan!”
“Your hair’s different.”
“I had it cut shorter,” Pam said, getting a word in. “I didn’t want to look like all those California girls.”
When we reached the cars, Pam separated herself and came over to hug Doug, Perry and me.
“Still writing poems?” she asked my shoulder. “You’ll have to show me.”
Embracing her, I experienced the old affection for her sturdy frame and how it matched her character.
The two cars set off for the home of a girl named Molly, where the party was to start.
* * *
Much later at the party, left to myself while others played table tennis, I remembered an incident I hadn’t thought about for some time. While still at Darien High, Pam had told me she hoped someone would ask her to the junior prom. Her confiding in me implied she didn’t have me in mind. True, I was terrified of dancing. On the other hand, I liked her, and I felt I should participate in this quintessential American high school event. Maybe I was being too negative. Maybe the love of poetry she and I shared meant she’d be open to the idea.
Hoping insecurity had colored my judgment, I asked Priscilla, Doug’s girlfriend and one of Pam’s closest friends, what she thought about my inviting Pam. Priscilla asked me to give her a day or two.
At last during another Group party, she took me aside. “I think it would put Pam in a difficult position.”
I almost demanded an explanation, but Priscilla had done what I’d asked and I didn’t want to make her feel even worse than I imagined she already did. Besides, I could guess what had gone through Pam’s mind. While I was great for a talk and sharing poems, I was unsuitable for such a public show. Much as girls liked me, I was expected to accept the limits. I both understood and resented it.
Since then, I’d returned to thinking of Pam as a kind of surrogate sister, even more so now that she lived three thousand miles away.
I’d reached this point in my thoughts when she sat beside me and asked, “What poems have you been writing?”
I smiled at her familiar way of getting to the point. “The one I wrote today is called ‘The Vanity of Shyness.’”
“Interesting. You’re saying to be shy is vain?”
“Exploring the possibility. Sometimes I think we seem shy when the truth is we feel superior to what’s going on around us.”
“I think of myself as shy. I hope that’s not the reason.”
“You? No way. That’s why I say ‘exploring.’ You know, I don’t really know. Just a thought—a subject for a poem.”
“An interesting one, though. Remember any lines?”
“Only the first: ‘Brick and mortar speeches.’”
“‘Brick and mortar speeches’? Like when someone has got their act so down, they don’t think when they speak?”
“I think that’s what I meant. Anyway, so how about California?”
“I miss it here. Hard to make new friends your last year in high school, and I can’t imagine having better friends than people like you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Listen, Sue just arrived. She needs someone to play against. I’ll stop by again later.”
It was after ten. When Doug next spoke to me, I asked him to take a few minutes to drive me home.
Episode 2. Dean Wall
The rush of autumnal air comes early in western Massachusetts. It won me over the first time my parents and I visited Amherst on our tour of New England colleges at the end of August of 1971, before my last year of high school.
As immigrants ignorant about American higher education, we relied on a list of colleges drawn up for me by Mr. Heffernan, my high school guidance counselor at Darien High. Someone mentioned he liked to wear green jackets, and I always pictured him in one. He walked me through the American college system and drew up a list of colleges for me to consider. Yale, the only name I’d heard of on the list, caught my fancy, as did a small liberal arts school named Amherst College. I was surprised, and of course flattered, by his confidence about my prospects.
When I visited Yale, I got into a lively discussion about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky—authors whose works I’d devoured—with my interviewer, a senior majoring in Russian literature. What a stroke of luck that she’d been assigned to my first college interview. I could only hope all my other interviews brought me out with half as much animation.
At Amherst College, my parents and I ducked under tree branches as we walked the paths of the quad, a great grass rectangle surrounded by the college’s earliest buildings. At one end, after we crossed a campus road, the world opened up to a large expanse of air. Dad said we were standing at the summit of a hill overlooking fields and, beyond, a range of other hills.
Then I was sitting on edge in the Admission Office, waiting for my interview with Dean Ed Wall. (Amherst had an explanation for the dropped last “s” in “Admissions” that was lost on me.) Dean Wall emerged, shook hands with my parents, and then steered me into his office, with no hint that either parent should join us. At his prompting, I talked about the subjects that interested me in and outside high school, my first years of an English education, our move to America.
“Do you have any questions for me?” he asked when he’d drawn out of me what he apparently needed. I asked him about the likelihood of the currently all-male Amherst admitting women, and he said he hoped it would happen by my junior year.
He left me in his office to invite my parents to join us.
“We had one blind student in the past,” he began when they were seated, “and I must tell you he had problems getting everything read to him. It put a tremendous burden on the faculty wives.”
He was posing a question; otherwise, why bother interviewing me?
I said, “Volunteers in our hometown have recorded many of my high school texts. An organization in a neighboring town transcribes foreign language and other books into braille. I’ve also used a place called Recordings for the Blind that tapes books I need, so long as we send them two print copies and give them enough notice.”
Dean Wall maintained his genial air. When we stood to go, he folded my hand in his great paw.
Episode 3. Stupid Oaf
Note: Throughout high school, as before and beyond, my parents gave me support in the form of encouragement and resources. In those days before widespread personal technology, few blind students could have succeeded without such support. Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Like every adolescent, I had principles at odds with grown-up wisdom; on the other hand, I didn’t maintain principled consistency.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask my readers at school to fill out my college applications, which put the burden on my parents, and because my mother deferred to Dad when it came to forms, that meant Dad. He sat across from me at the dining room table hour after hour.
“Don’t forget your guitar playing,” he said. “You took lessons.”
“That doesn’t make me a guitar player.”
“I enjoy your playing.”
This was wrenching. His enjoyment came from a father’s pride that I could play any notes at all when that music-loving father had no musical training. His good opinion mattered to me. If I implied his enjoyment didn’t make me a good player, he would be hurt.
With a degree of menace only he knew how to put into a single word, he demanded, “Well?”
I tapped my fingers on the table.
“Are we putting down that you play the guitar or not?” he pressed.
“It doesn’t feel honest.”
“Don’t be a stupid oaf. Every other high school student in this country is claiming they’re an expert in everything from Buddhism to thumb twiddling.”
“Not the ones I know.”
“You obviously don’t know them well. They want to get into the best colleges.”
“So do I.”
“Then answer these questions like you mean it.”
If a college were to test my claim, I’d be exposed as a fraud. More than that, I believed in honesty. Conflicting loyalties to Dad and to Truth rendered me mute.
“You’d better put it down then,” I said.
“I’ll only put it down if you want me to.”
I went silent again.
“I said, ‘Well?’”
In my mind, I answered, I know you did, Dad.
Eventually, I gave in, on that and every other battle set up by those applications.
* * *
An opportunity to pad my extracurricular credentials came when the high school chess club met to elect a new president. I now had a chess board with raised black squares and white pieces whose heads were planed flat so I could identify them as such. I’d begun at the club two years earlier by beating another new member twice in a row. My opponent, Jeff, turned out to be our best player, and I never beat him again. Our club was in a league of surrounding schools in which the contests were less about who would prevail than whether the visiting team would show up with the minimum number of players. Not defaulting was our most feared weapon.
Jeff was the logical choice to be president. We sat at a table with him at the head and, by happenstance, me opposite him. The other five members lined the table’s sides.
“So,” Jeff said, “are we ready to elect the next president?” Murmurs around the table indicated assent. “I nominate myself,” he said. No preamble. A friend of his seconded.
At my left a guy named Mel said, “Jeff, I know you think you’re entitled, but you need a challenger. You can make a fine speech, and we can listen to the other guy’s speech, and then we’ll decide based on what you both say.”
Mel, whom I’d met in the chess club, had read and digested more than anyone I knew, including maybe even Perry, the guy with whom I shared Latin jokes. Not that I liked everything he recommended. When I read Hermann Hesse at his urging, I found the promotion of self-discovery depressing. Without the freedom that sight required, how could I possibly forge my own path? In the same vein, Hesse stressed nonconformity, that illusory “do your own thing” that had bludgeoned me in ninth grade. But Mel’s point of view was all his own, untainted by leading questions from teachers. Consistent with his determination to find his own way, he had no time for such distractions as course assignments and good grades. He was what was politely called “socially awkward.” But I respected his determination to be himself, and I liked him.
Several times during the summer, he’d dropped in at my home to play chess in the room my parents had set aside as my study. Part of the exercise in chess was learning to anticipate three or four moves ahead. When Mel became convinced there was no alternative to his losing, he’d say, “I resign,” honoring chess etiquette by not wasting time on a foregone conclusion. I wasn’t always sure his assessment was correct, but he’d immediately start lining up his pieces for a new game.
Jeff asked Mel, “Are you nominating yourself?”
Well-handled, I thought. I assumed Jeff was annoyed, and I wouldn’t have blamed him, but overcoming a natural reaction, he’d put the initiative back on Mel.
Mel said, “I think the right person to run this club would be…” He said my name.
I managed to suppress a gasp. Nothing I could do if I was blushing. Sitting at my right, Liesl, the club’s only girl, promptly seconded. She’d quietly befriended me, too.
I hadn’t done anything to deserve Mel’s nomination other than being his friend. Not only was I a mediocre player, but also Jeff had done all the organizing, such as setting up the contests with neighboring schools. Then I thought of those college applications.
I said, “I appreciate the nomination, and I accept.”
“In that case…” Jeff said. He stopped. He was deflated. It showed in the pause. But once again he rallied, projecting his voice across the table to me, “Who goes first?”
“I’m sure you’ve prepared. I’m putting my thoughts together, so why don’t you start.”
Even three seats away, I heard him take a deep breath. “I hate making speeches,” he began, “and anyway, my case is simple. I’ve been a member of this club for two years, I’m a good player, and I got Stamford and Norwalk to agree to compete with us. That’s my case. I’d love to be president, and I promise more competitions.”
“How about chips and dip?” Liesl said.
“That, too, if members want.”
Mel said, “Not all those meets worked out.”
One school hadn’t shown up on the scheduled afternoon and defaulted. We didn’t want that kind of victory. We just wanted opponents.
To head off more bickering, I spoke up. “Okay, my turn. I promise that if I’m president, I will use all the resources available to us. I’d urge Jeff to continue to use his contacts to make arrangements with the other schools. Above all, I promise to bring a civil tone to our meetings.”
Jeff wasn’t to blame for the bickering. It was my friends, Mel and Liesl. They didn’t like him. But their blaming him worked to my advantage. Appealing to peace seemed an excellent, if cynical, strategy for a one-minute campaign.
“And the chips and dip?” Jeff asked.
“Oh, I count on Liesl for that.” I beamed a smile at her.
The chess club knew nothing about secret ballots. Jeff called for the vote. He and two others raised their hands and declared their vote for him. Mel, Liesl and another boy declared their vote for me. That left my uncast vote as tie-breaker.
I weighed my decision. Conscience pointed a finger at me and said, “You know perfectly well Jeff has earned the honor.” But the voice of my father inside my head barked, “Don’t be a stupid oaf. You need every credential you can get if you really mean you want to go to the best college.”
I told the members, “I vote for me.”
Episode 4. Meditating on the Transcendentalists
This episode is a flashback to junior year. Throughout my time in high school, protests against the Vietnam War raged.
Two characters appeared in previous excerpts: Doug drove the car when we met Pam at the train station, and Perry was the bookworm with whom I shared Latin-related jokes.
My current English teacher, Mr. Munro, sitting as always on the front of his teacher’s desk, was leading a discussion about the ongoing street and campus demonstrations. He was ancient. Fifties? Sixties? Not old enough to have lost his libido, but old enough for his libido to repel us. Our first indication had been his assigning the front desks to the girls with shapely legs. Seated at the desk next to the door to simplify my arrivals and exits, I was daily chagrined to find myself the front row’s trousered exception.
Today’s topic was “On Civil Disobedience,” the essay in which Henry David Thoreau argued for the role of conscience. He’d written it in 1846 after spending a night in jail for refusing to pay the poll tax associated with the expansionist war with Mexico. Mr. Munro saw Thoreau’s appeal to conscience as attempting to reconcile Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seemingly contradictory concepts of self-reliance and the Over-soul. While self-reliance promoted individual autonomy, the Over-soul included all of us in something larger. As filtered through Mr. Munro, Thoreau agreed that we all answer to a higher authority—call it the law—but asserted we still have the right to decide what that law should be.
Addressing the class, Mr. Munro posed the question, “Is Thoreau correct in saying the individual has the right to disregard laws he considers unjust?”
Gail, a vocal feminist and Christian whose place next to me in the front row told me she had a fine pair of legs, bumped my desk in her eagerness to volunteer. “The more fundamental question is whether law is a social need or a mystical code from God.”
For Doug, her reference to God was a red flag to a bull. From the back of the room, he boomed, “Actually, the real fundamental question is whether God exists in the first place, which, by the way, she doesn’t.”
Gail retorted, “Nothing is more stupid than dismissing God.”
For once on the same side as Doug, Perry shot back, “People might think anyone who believes in God is stupid.”
I couldn’t help but join in the laughter. But I didn’t agree with Doug or Perry, any more than I did with Gail. I felt God’s existence could neither be proved nor disproved, a namby-pamby position that would have had the unprecedented effect of uniting Doug, Perry and Gail against me.
There was a grin in Mr. Munro’s voice as he moved the discussion along. “I submit to you that conscience is related to conditioning. We grow up being told what is right and what is wrong. Does that suggest anything about the origin of conscience?” And so we went from philosophy to behavioral psychology.
I was hamstrung by a sense that all this anguishing was a tempest in an American teapot. For all Thoreau’s philosophical arguments about the role of conscience in society, his sojourn in Walden seemed to me an exercise in escapism. While he was hanging out with the birds and the trees, Charles Dickens in England had been addressing the all-too-real problems of industrialized society.
Besides, I’d never heard of these Transcendentalists in England, as if any thirteen-year-old would have. If that was the true source of my resistance, it was homesickness in disguise. Mr. Munro was on to this homesickness, although he apparently interpreted it as arrogance. He almost never called on me, even when I raised my hand. One time he did, even though I hadn’t volunteered, he asked if I’d read Gone with the Wind. I hadn’t.
“Well, I’ve read The Forsyte Saga,” he retorted. Everyone knew about John Galsworthy’s novels because of the long-running dramatization on Channel 13. His tone accused me of being too arrogant to read what he himself deemed a third-rate American book, but less scrupulous when it came to a third-rate British one.
It wasn’t only homesickness that put me off the Transcendentalists. There was also Emerson’s celebration of self-reliance. American culture was permeated with the conviction that people could go it alone, while I came from a country that emphasized social cohesion. I’d benefited from the National Health Service, which made everyone share the costs of medical treatment. Moreover, without sight, I could have no illusions about pure self-reliance. I owed my ability to handle school to my teachers, the students who read and otherwise assisted me, and my parents. My dependence on others wasn’t unique; just more obvious, different only in degree from the dependence we all had on each other. Sighted drivers needed someone to build the cars and someone else to maintain the roads. Dependence, I told myself, was all about appearances. Except in my darker moments, I knew appearances mattered.
Episode 5. Theresa
I met Theresa, who lived in a nearby town, at a summer cooking course for blind high school students. Miss Friss, traveling between Fairfield County school districts to transcribe tests into braille and coordinate with regular teachers, had long sung her praises.
Theresa and I began spending Saturdays together at our homes, and soon talk turned to exploration. At my place, we were confined to caresses that could be withdrawn at the first sign of footsteps or a hand on my study’s door knob. At hers, she was under orders to leave open the door to any room where we were together. That was funny because her parents had a country cottage and usually went away on weekends, leaving both their daughters at home. The younger daughter entertained her boyfriend in her bedroom downstairs, while Theresa entertained me in hers upstairs.
One Saturday afternoon the younger daughter was away somewhere and their parents were to leave Theresa and me on our own. Calling from the back door, her father announced they were on their way.
“Have a good trip,” Theresa called back.
I nodded, for what it was worth, considering he couldn’t see me from down there. I hesitated to speak because I was pretty sure he disliked me. Moments later, an engine came to life, and the car sprayed gravel as it set off down the driveway.
“Phew,” Theresa said. “I thought they’d never leave.”
“I wonder if they really have.”
“We heard the car. We know Mom was already out there, and Dad slammed the back door behind him.”
“I just have a feeling,” I said. “I know I’m being paranoid, but let’s hold off for a while. Read me an Aldous Huxley story. And let’s keep your door open.”
Having learned braille as a young child, Theresa was a fluent reader. She owned a braille volume of Huxley’s stories that I loved to have her read to me.
“I don’t relish reading right now,” she said. “So, if you won’t come to bed, tell me more about your week. You always have so many stories.”
Her “relish” took me back to my summer at the Oak Hill School for the Blind, where she’d gone for several years before transferring to public high school. Kids there were always saying, “I don’t relish going to typing class tomorrow” or “I don’t relish mashed potatoes.” No one else I knew used the word.
The story that came to mind wasn’t much of one. “I had an embarrassing moment the other day. After social studies, this guy came up to me and said he liked an answer I’d given. I said, ‘Thanks, Brad.’ Remember me talking about Brad, the guy from Chicago? I like him a lot.”
“It wasn’t Brad,” Theresa surmised.
“It was a guy named Mike, someone I hardly know. I’m sure he gave me a strange look, but he didn’t say anything, and I moved on as if I didn’t realize I’d made such a pathetic mistake.”
With Theresa, I could admit to such things and know she’d understand. Actually, she had no trouble identifying voices, but she’d had other embarrassments that sighted people were spared.
“I was in a swimming pool when I had, you know, my first period,” she’d told me. “This woman started tugging at me to get out. That was a really bad day.”
Afraid to ask but impelled by curiosity, I said, “How did she know?”
“She told me there was a cloud of red around me.”
Something she said another time prompted me to explain that images and sounds travel differently. “You might hear someone talking from the other side of a wall, but the wall will block you from seeing them. Unless the person is taller than the wall, then you might see their head and maybe their shoulders.”
I wasn’t sure my explanation was clear, but she seemed satisfied, and I was pleased that I’d been able to open up her world a little.
At my urging Theresa had read the venerable Alexander Scourbie’s narration of War and Peace. She said, “Prince Andre makes me think of you.”
Prince Andre was someone I could never hope to emulate. His charm and sophistication required physical autonomy, and physical autonomy required sight, didn’t it? Nevertheless, in Theresa’s bedroom, I reveled in the incredibly flattering comparison.
In response to her demand that I tell her another story from my week, I came up with one that showed we had certain advantages. “Remember my French teacher, Mr. Harralson?”
“The Norwegian guy. You don’t like him much.”
“He has absolutely no sense of humor. If you’re going to make us learn by rote, at least tell a joke once in a while. So you know how Miss Piss badgers us to put the course name and date at the top of each page of braille notes?” This was Miss Friss’s name behind her stern back.
Theresa said, “She’s always on me about that.”
“So this week, instead of brailling ‘French’ at the top of each page, I put ‘Horrible Harralson.’ There I am, at the front of the class, right under his nose, and he can’t know because he doesn’t read braille.”
“Miss Piss will see.”
“She never looks at my French homework. She wanted me to take Spanish because that’s what she studied. Reason alone to go with French.”
“I took Spanish. She—”
Theresa broke off at the telltale sound of wheels on gravel outside. The back door was thrown open, and footsteps raced through the kitchen and up the stairs.
Sitting at the pillow end of the bed, Theresa said, “Forgot something?”
At her door, her father said, “Batteries for the flashlight and emergency radio.”
“Aren’t they downstairs?” she asked, all innocence. Lounging at the foot of the bed, I smiled pleasantly.
“You’re right. But I wanted to make sure you didn’t think burglars had broken in.”
“Last thing I need is a big scare,” Theresa agreed.
“Everything okay?” her father said.
“Great. We’re about to read an Aldous Huxley story.”
“Great. Well, I’ll get the batteries. I hope we’ve remembered everything this time.”
“Enjoy yourselves,” she said.
After they left again, we did read a story, and by the time Theresa finished, we felt safe.
Episode 6. Take the High Ground, Then Run?
Back in sophomore year, our English teacher, Dr. Haller, consented to student demands for a class discussion, demands triggered by President Nixon’s decision to bomb North Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia. Dr. Haller proposed we begin by holding a preliminary vote on whether the U.S. should be in Vietnam at all.
As a boy, in addition to building model planes and warships, I’d created armies of tiny plastic soldiers and little model tanks on the dining room table, and I’d devoured everything I could find about the two world wars. But even then, I’d known that a miniature plastic army or a book read while lying on my bed wasn’t war.
War was more like the multi-part BBC documentary on the Great War that Mum and Dad had let me stay up to watch back in Sheffield. The herky-jerky black-and-white footage had only heightened its terrors. How had those men, ordered to attack across no man’s land, found the courage to hoist themselves from the relative safety of a trench into a hail of bullets? I’d have known those bullets were aimed at me. My grandfather on my mother’s side had fought in that war, and family lore had it that he’d been standing and talking to a man when the man’s head was sheared off by a shell.
Later, when I was hospitalized in London, my friend and mentor, Mr. Kaminsky, had told me how Poland’s Home Guard had risen up in Warsaw against the Germans as the Russians advanced, only for the Russians to wait at the city’s limits while the Germans massacred the Poles. I’d told him I couldn’t imagine having the courage those Poles had shown. I still couldn’t.
I would have been terrified less of being killed than being seriously wounded. I had a good idea of what a serious wound could do. Achilles tendon surgery when I was seven had confined me to bed for months on end, and I’d discovered first-hand that you really could lose your sight.
Daydreaming through an imaginary battle, I couldn’t follow through on a scenario in which I put an enemy soldier in my gun’s sight. I saw the man’s face and his expression. There were all kinds of people, therefore all kinds of soldiers, but I always seemed to pick out the ones with sad faces or gentle smiles, combatants as reluctant as me. How could I pull the trigger?
Dr. Haller called out, “Those in favor?”
Despite my fears, and not because of them, I rejected pacifism. My reading had persuaded me that living under Nazism would have been worse than fighting it. Day by day, life would have been filled with danger for myself, my family and friends, all of us living in constant terror of a misinterpreted gesture, an unfortunate choice of words, a show of sympathy. I felt communism constituted the same threat, and I’d written a paper in social studies arguing for the containment theory in light of Chamberlain at Munich. Did I think harsh, oppressive communism could come to the United States or England? We couldn’t afford to wait, only to find the enemy on the doorstep. Bombing Cambodia was a violation of neutrality that even I thought was wrong, but I believed Chamberlain-like passivity would be even worse.
The class was quiet, waiting to see if anyone would dare cast a vote condoning war.
What if I spoke up for my convictions? Knowing I’d be exempt from military service when I came of age at eighteen, my classmates would think to themselves, “Easy for him to say.” (Girls were also exempt, but that was somehow different.) Of course, they wouldn’t say it aloud for fear of hurting the feelings of their disabled classmate. Still, didn’t I at least have the moral courage to take a public stance?
I raised my hand.
During the even deeper silence that followed, the girl next to me tittered and whispered, “You’re the only one.” I felt my face grow hot.
The class stayed silent, perhaps waiting for me to justify myself. But I’d need to explain that during the years before we left England, the nightly news had been dominated by Britain’s efforts to help defend Malaysia against a communist Indonesian incursion. No one here had even heard about that war. If I started there, I’d get so bogged down that I’d never get to growing up in a country of bombed and rebuilt cities after Chamberlain’s Munich. In the charged atmosphere, I’d become confused and incoherent.
Episode 7. White Cane Ambivalence
Note: A crucial part of independence training for newly blinded people is mobility and orientation. In his unorthodox, roundabout way, my mobility teacher during high school, Mr. Virgil, not only taught his official subject, but also gave me some life lessons.
Every couple of weeks, Mr. Virgil drove down from his home near Hartford to give me mobility instruction. When we ventured out to Noroton Avenue on a spring or late summer afternoon, I’d feel shrunk to the texture of the pavement, the sultriness of tar-scented air, Mr. Virgil’s patient drone, his occasional warning touch on my wrist.
Noroton Avenue led directly from home to school, a distance of six-tenths of a mile. I could have walked it on my own. I’d fantasized about telling Mum I would do just that and that she needn’t drive me anymore. But I’d make mistakes, and there’d be so many people watching.
Horror at making a spectacle of myself wasn’t unfounded. Theresa’s mother and mine alternated between taking us to and from events. One evening after some meeting or other, Theresa and I were waiting on the sidewalk for my mother to appear when I heard some guy mutter, “What a pity,” and his woman companion shush him. It was obvious they were reacting to our white canes, a spontaneous expression of compassion that made me cringe. Neither Theresa nor I mentioned it afterwards, and I figured she hadn’t heard. It went with all the times a guy had said to me, “Well, I guess you can’t know that,” and a girl, gently, “It must be so hard.”
But yes, it could be difficult. It pained me that Noroton Avenue would never be as detailed for me as the streets of my childhood. I had verbal descriptions of the houses and yards, but I’d mostly forgotten even that much. They didn’t stick in my head the way sight imprinted images.
Then one afternoon, I toyed with the thought that my world was no longer confined to the fixed landscape of Noroton Avenue the way it was for sighted people. Ignoring Mr. Virgil, who blithely chatted away without need of any prompting from me, I let my imagination open wide and floated into the silent vista stretching out before me. Such a liberating sense of space, such boundless possibility.
Though self-conscious about the cane, I was becoming even more so about relying on others. In fact, I was using the cane more and more to get around school. I made few mistakes there, although going from one wing to another could be a challenge. The building’s cross-shape meant that between classes, everyone piled from four directions into a small intersection, pushing and shoving past each other to beat the bell.
Theresa’s casual example helped. Although a self-confessed indifferent cane user, she didn’t think the cane carried any stigma.
“Doesn’t bother me,” she said. It made sense. People mostly revealed their reactions to the cane visually rather than verbally, and blind since birth, she’d never seen people gape at the paraphernalia of disability. I knew I had to get past the memory of those troubled looks, but I wasn’t there yet.
Mr. Virgil always met me in the school library’s storage closet, which Administration had assigned to me so that my readers and I could work in peace and not disturb others. From time to time, a librarian came in to retrieve a book, usually without knocking, but otherwise it was my fiefdom. Sometimes Mr. Virgil got so lost in his monologues that we never left the closet to have me practice mobility techniques. Although acting as if wrapped up in his own head, he quietly nudged me in the direction of psychological independence, far harder for me than the physical skills he was paid to teach.
Formerly a trainer for veterans blinded in World War II, he told me about a waitress who had served clients of his in a restaurant. She asked them to keep an eye on the check while she went to get coffee to give them refills. When she returned, she saw an artificial eye staring up at her from the check. Twenty-five years later, Mr. Virgil shared my dismay for the waitress. Afterwards I wondered if he’d been trying to get me to make light of the embarrassments of blindness. But if I did, I thought people would feel even more sorry for me. Or else they’d laugh at my expense, which I wouldn’t like, either.
Before Theresa, I’d complained to him about how the girls at school saw me at most as a friend. He gave a small cough before saying, “Sighted women don’t become open to a relationship with a blind man until their late twenties.”
Mr. Virgil could have told me, “You’ll get there before you know it,” or some such bromide. Instead, he let my bleak echo go unanswered.
Any other guy would have found his assessment obvious. Why would any halfway attractive and intelligent girl commit herself to a boy who couldn’t see her and who wasn’t self-reliant?
Afterwards, at times when I felt depressed, I’d find Mr. Virgil’s words faintly comforting. They said I needn’t worry about appearance, gaucheness or the other torments of adolescence. For once, having blindness to blame was a consolation.
But those phases didn’t last. However irrational, however slim the odds, I’d refused to resign myself to such an interminable wait.
Episode 8. I’ll Follow the Sun
After one of the meetings Theresa and I attended, her mother took her arm and guided me by voice to the car. As she opened the front passenger door for her daughter, I went to open the one behind. My hand must have been too close to the front door because the next thing I knew, she’d slammed it on my thumb.
“Let me see that,” she demanded. I stopped squeezing my thumb and raised it toward her. “Bruised. You’ll lose the nail, but it doesn’t look broken.”
No expression of alarm, no apology.
I never found out the reasons for Theresa’s parents’ hostility. Clearly, they felt protective of their daughter’s virtue, as her father’s attempt to catch us in bed had revealed. But maybe they just didn’t like me. Except I sensed they wouldn’t have been happy about any boy being close to their daughter. Their conduct certainly didn’t surprise Theresa.
What little time Theresa and I spent in the company of others was with kids in the local Guild for the Visually Handicapped. I liked them, some of them a lot. Theresa pretty much lived in that world. But I didn’t want the common factor of blindness to determine my social life.
By now, I was continuing with her out of inertia, as I suspected she was with me. What we did was take physical pleasure and comfort from each other, although without (to use the euphemism) going all the way. Neither of us figured out how to obtain birth control without involving a family member or friend, which was unthinkable. With soft caresses, we passed on the love we needed to, though the need of neither of us found its true object.
After thirteen months, I was thinking about ending our relationship. But how? And where? A sighted guy could choose the time and place, have the painful talk, then get in his car and drive off. Breaking it off at my place would be too unfair to her. If I did it at hers, it would have to be one of the Saturdays when her parents went away to their country place. Otherwise, I was sure all their barely concealed antipathy would boil over. I’d need to have my own parents on standby and hope they’d arrive at just the right moment, something I could hardly count on.
I broached the subject one Saturday at her place, an hour before Mum was to drive me home. Her entire family was in the house, but Theresa and I were on our own in the lounge.
“Where do you think we go from here?” I asked.
At my side, she said, “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t given it much thought.”
It made sense. Was there really any need to think about the future, here and now?
She said, “Why do you ask? You want to break up?”
“Wondering, that’s all.”
On the phone a few days later, I said, “I guess I do believe we need to think about the future.”
“So, you want to end it.”
“Sorry, Theresa. I think it’s best.”
“Can you tell me why?”
I had no good reason. That we weren’t compatible? That was no answer. Anything more specific would lead me into a swamp of my own confusion and contradictions. So I told her, “I’m kind of interested in a girl I know in school.”
“What’s her name? Have you mentioned her to me?”
“She’s the one who asked you how to reject that guy, right?”
* * *
I knew Gretchen mainly from Group parties. One day when she and I had been talking at one of them, she’d told me about an occasional player in the Group named Joe who’d asked her to go out with him. Little about Joe had registered with me, but it didn’t mean I had nothing to say.
“He’s a nice guy,” I said.
“That’s the problem, he is nice. I don’t want to hurt him. But I think he could be needy.”
“I suspect you’re right. Listen,” I continued, “the kindest thing will be to tell him you’re not interested.”
“You think so?”
“Definitely. I know I’d want to know.” When a girl had stalled rather than tell me she wasn’t interested, it had only prolonged the agony.
A few days later, I wrote in the journal I kept off and on:
Gretchen called me tonight to tell me how it ended up. She was more ‘brutal’ than she intended. He caught her in the midst of making dinner (a stupid move). But she was firm and is now relieved.
* * *
In my desperation at Theresa’s side, I’d plucked Gretchen’s name out of thin air not because it was the real explanation for my changed feelings—I didn’t have one—but because it was one that would probably make sense to her. I winced, both at my dishonesty with Theresa and at the memory of what I’d said to Gretchen, which had begun to feel self-serving.
Although it was sad for both of us, I sensed she wasn’t crushed. It was as if we’d both been thinking the same thing, only I got there first. We worked it through after a few more phone calls.
Yet I minded a lot. Without a girl to take Theresa’s place, I sometimes felt I’d given up our relationship—my physical connection with a girl—for no good reason, until I thought of another twelve-hour Saturday with us trying to get excited about anything.
Episode 9. The Date from Hell
Note: Several people here appeared in the first episode. Doug drove the car when several of us went to meet Pam at the train station, Priscilla was his girlfriend, and Molly was the host of the party we attended. Mr. Virgil was my mobility instructor.
It turned out Gretchen really had been on my mind. She wasn’t the cause of my breakup with Theresa, but my interest in her had been one more sign that it was in the making. I realized it while talking to Molly during one of our sandwich lunches in the library closet, the small room the school had given me to work with my readers.
Molly was saying, “Gretchen told me last night she’s looking for a boy who is intelligent, thoughtful and sincere. Isn’t that funny? That’s the boy every girl wants, but she thinks it’s so unusual.”
I perked up. “I think I’m sincere.”
“Okay. And since you’re fishing, she probably considers you intelligent.”
It happened that a minor accident had recently brought Gretchen and me closer. We were both headed to the lounge at the end of B wing, and she offered her arm, which I was glad to accept. As we descended the steps to the lower level, I tripped. To avoid dragging her down with me, I let go of her arm and landed halfway down on my back. Recovering, I realized she’d ended up close by, her groan telling me she, too, was on her back. No one else was around.
I asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Her answer sounded pained.
“Are you sure?”
“Winded. Shaken. How about you?” This time her voice was strong.
I struggled to get up, reached out and found the handrail. I used it to guide me down the remaining steps, where I again took her arm. Afterwards, I was pleased that my first impulse had been to check on her. I might not be as self-absorbed as I accused myself.
* * *
I called Doug to ask what he thought about my inviting Gretchen to the senior class play the coming Saturday.
“Why not, man?”
I had good reasons why not. In addition to a guy’s usual insecurities, there was Mr. Virgil’s conviction that I’d need to wait until my late twenties to interest girls. Beyond all that, there was that difficulty over Joe I’d admitted to Theresa. Now that I was trying to accomplish what I’d helped him fail at, I was ashamed for having encouraged Gretchen to turn him down. I explained to Doug.
“Gretchen wouldn’t think that about you. No way. Tell her Priscilla and I will pick you both up.”
I dialed Gretchen’s number. She sounded surprised and pleased to hear from me. After fumbling through a preamble, I put the question to her.
“Sure,” she said, now sounding nervous.
I called Doug to report the date was on.
“Great. Here’s what’s going to happen. Priscilla and I will pick you up in the Dougmobile, then we’ll drive to Gretchen’s. When we get there, I’ll honk the horn, like I do with you, and she’ll come and sit with you in the back. At the school, it will only be natural for her to go inside with you.”
“I’d like to talk to her on my own at some point.”
“That’s what intermissions are for. Suggest you go outside for some air. Even if we go outside, I’ll steer clear, and I’ll make sure Priscilla doesn’t hover around. Now, after the play, we’ll go somewhere for ice cream, or whatever. You don’t mind if we join you then, right?”
“Of course not.”
“Then to end the evening, there’s the ‘goodbye’ part. You will say, ‘I’ll come to the door with you, Gretchen,’ and get out of the car with her.”
“Okay,” I said. But between hating to be seen with a cane and lack of confidence in my mobility skills, I worried about getting back to the car on my own.
As I was trying to figure out a minimally cringe-inducing way of admitting it, Doug said, “I’ll park so that we’re out of sight of the entrance. Now, after you’ve given her a goodnight kiss—”
“Gotta try, man. Like I say, after the goodnight kiss, she’ll go inside and I’ll charge up and grab you and bring you back to the car.”
* * *
Saturday arrived, cold and damp. Doug and Priscilla drew up in our driveway, and I sat behind Doug. When we reached Gretchen’s, she waved from a window, then took an age closing the front door.
“There’s something wrong with the lock,” she explained when she at last got into the back, behind Priscilla. “Hi, everyone. My parents aren’t home, so I should get back right after the play.”
I said, “They’re in Ohio, right?”
“Visiting the clan. I had too much work to do.”
Unhappy about the implications, I was glad the ever-garrulous Doug took the conversational lead.
Gretchen and I walked into the auditorium together, trailing Doug and Priscilla. I handed my ticket to Molly, who was ushering that evening. When she greeted me, something in her voice conveyed a wink.
The four of us walked down the center aisle until Gretchen pointed out several free seats in a row.
“You take those,” Doug said. “We have some people over there we need to see.”
Gretchen edged sideways into the row of seats, saying, “Let’s go in farther so people don’t keep climbing over us.” I edged along beside her. “Here,” she said, rather loudly I thought, as if to make sure I didn’t bump into her. I took off my coat, sat down and laid it on my lap.
“Know anything about the play?” I said.
“Molly gave me a program. Let me see.”
As she started reading, a guy named Peter came to the seat in front of her. Molly had told me Gretchen was interested in him, then added for my peace of mind it had been several months ago. The two of them got so animated, I had my doubts. Then Molly and some other girls sat in the row behind us as the curtain was about to rise. Peter turned away, but Gretchen and the girls chatted away until an actor strode onto the stage.
The performance was funny when meant to be serious, tedious when meant to be funny. Considering I almost always ended up dismayed after showing my poems around, I should have empathized with my classmates on the stage. Instead, I whispered withering comments to Gretchen, and her giggles encouraged me. Well, she giggled at my comments when she wasn’t being distracted by Peter, who kept turning around and making his own comments.
At intermission, I said, “Shall we go outside for some air?”
“Too cold for me. You go ahead.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I was just thinking it would be good to move around.”
Peter wished Gretchen goodnight, eliminating one hindrance to the plan, and she turned her attention to me.
“Did you ever find out what’s causing that whistling?” she asked. I’d told her that I’d been going to see a specialist about high-pitched noises in my head.
“The doc doesn’t know, but he doesn’t think it’s serious.”
“I think it’s the wind blowing through the open spaces in your brain,” she said.
Delighted she was engaging in the repartee we’d shared in school and at parties, I laughed.
Then from behind us, Molly said to her, “I couldn’t understand what we’re supposed to do for the biology assignment. Did you?”
Gretchen, Molly and the other girls around us were science students, my worst subject, and their conversation lasted the rest of the intermission.
As the second half began, Molly whispered down, “Gretchen, you realize it’s about a dream, right?”
Gretchen snapped back at her, “Yes, I realize it’s about a dream.”
So, she was on edge. Although her sudden annoyance hadn’t been directed at me, I felt sure I was the cause. We were all pretty quiet the rest of the play.
During the last round of applause, Gretchen asked me for the time. Assuming she had a watch, I took it as a hint.
“I’ve got to get home,” she said.
I stood, but as I began zipping up my coat, she said, “The people next to you have left. You can go ahead.” She gave me a push. When I reached the aisle, she shoved me again. I gave up on the zipper and resigned myself to being cold.
As we walked to the car, she said, “Boy, am I glad for some air.”
Doug and Priscilla appeared. “Sure you won’t join us for ice cream?” he asked Gretchen.
“I’m sure. Sorry, but I’ve got to get home.”
We set off in the car, and I went over in my head the next and last stage of the plan.
Drawing up to Gretchen’s house, Doug said, “I’m not sure we’ll fit in that space, so I’ll just park along here. It’s only a few extra steps.”
“Well, thank you, everyone,” Gretchen said, already turned to the door and opening it.
Taking the handle on my side, I said, “I’ll go with you.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. “See you Monday.” She slammed her door.
Another guy would have hopped out anyway and sidled up next to her, but I’d received enough warning shots that evening to stop a battleship.
Pulling up at my house, Doug and Priscilla insisted on coming in. We went through to the room my parents had set aside for me. They took the couch, and I turned my desk chair around to face them.
After we trashed the play, I said, “I don’t think I should ask Gretchen out again.”
Doug agreed. “Excellent Plan B.”
Priscilla, ever the conciliator, tried to be positive. “I was talking to her a few days ago, and she said she valued your friendship and doesn’t want to lose it.”
“And,” I guessed, “she was afraid going out with me would ruin it?”
“Um, no. Well, yeah.”
Episode 10. Point of View
Note: Molly was last seen reluctantly assuring me that I just might qualify for Gretchen’s affections, leading to the date from hell.
It seemed to me that Mr. Sykes, my youthful social studies teacher, had to struggle with shyness as much as I did, one of the reasons I was drawn to him.
For my first paper in his course, I wrote about the causes of the War of 1812. He gave it a B. I despised students who tried to negotiate grades with teachers, but I’d worked hard on that assignment.
Standing at his desk, I asked, “Can you tell me what I did wrong?”
Looking up from his chair, Mr. Sykes answered, “It was missing a point of view.”
“But there are so many points of view. They all have some validity.”
“Then all you’re doing is making a list. You need a theory to have an organizing principle. Without that, a paper doesn’t have focus.” His words were direct, but his tone respectful.
“What about objective journalism?” I asked.
“Do you think newspaper articles are objective?”
“They try to be.”
“That might be so.”
His not exactly contradicting me left the issue to fester in my mind.
I hadn’t been the only one who put work into that paper. The librarians and my readers had gone through the catalogs with me for articles and books, and then my readers and I had skimmed tables of contents and indices. As my readers read articles aloud, I’d picked up page turnings and pauses for when I might need to return for some detail or other. “Go back to the second paragraph in section 2.” My instructions had to be terse, and I worried I sounded brusque. I brailled notes that were all but cryptic in their brevity in order to compensate later for my slow braille reading speed. Then I sat alone in the family room with my typewriter and piles of notes and pieced together the essay. I’d been astonished to find I had so much to say on something about which I’d known almost nothing two weeks before.
But effort wasn’t enough, and I knew it. You didn’t deserve a good grade purely for effort. Try as I might, I’d never become a chess master.
My next paper for Mr. Sykes addressed the causes of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Historians variously attributed it to accident, corruption and partisan journalism. I resigned myself to choosing a point of view and working from it. In fact, I became convinced that William Randolph Hearst had riled the masses into such a frenzy that President McKinley was forced to intervene in Cuba. It was consistent with Tolstoy’s argument in his epilogue to War and Peace (a book I loved) that Napoleon had been driven by the combined words and actions of all the people in France and beyond to embark on his disastrous march into Russia.
For the last part of the assignment, I had to lead a class discussion on the topic. Standing with the teacher’s desk at my back, I felt at ease as I made my presentation and responded to questions and comments. I knew the voice and style of each student. I knew my subject and, painful concession to Mr. Sykes, believed in my point of view.
After my presentation, Molly, who was in the same class, told me with something like awe, “I never knew you had such confidence.” Nor had I.
Episode 11. Soap Operas
In high school we knew, even at the time, that we’d look back on our social lives as a series of soap operas. That’s what I discovered years later while reading the section quoted here from the journal I kept off and on at the time. As the first episode explains, we were in a clique of academic-minded students that called itself “The Group.” Scott, who makes his first appearance here, was at The Group’s heart, in more ways than one.
Several people from previous installments, including Molly, come back for more. Perry is the guy who forgot to get a birthday card for the girl he was seeing, and Priscilla is the girl who tried to reassure him. She also tried to help me look on the bright side of the date from hell. In both cases, Doug was choreographer and driver.
Mr. Munro was the teacher who taught the Transcendentalists and lined his classroom’s front-row desks with shapely-legged girls.
I’d suspected Molly was interested in Scott, but I was still surprised when I heard the rumor. It was hard to think of her as other than a sometimes-combative friend and former reader.
That Scott was the object of girls’ interest wasn’t news. They flocked to him. A Group fixture, he was an outgoing, energetic guy who gave every impression of going on to a successful career. Guys liked him, too. Doug told me he considered him his best friend. To my mind, Scott was shallow, a devastating high school verdict that I had a horrible feeling said more about me than him.
Then I heard Priscilla was also interested in him. That was an even bigger surprise than the rumor about Molly. Doug and Priscilla had ceased to be an item. Even though Doug and I spoke every day and he seemed to hold nothing back, I had no real sense how the end had come about. At parties Priscilla and he still talked and laughed together and seemed completely at ease.
On the phone one evening, I took advantage of something Molly said to get at the truth. “Speaking of Scott, there’s a rumor going around that you’re interested in him.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. No way I’d be part of his harem—anyone’s harem. The whole thing’s a farce. He isn’t worth it.”
When Molly said he wasn’t “worth it,” I believed the rumor.
Three days later, she called me. “I still love him, but I absolutely won’t chase after him. I don’t want to be like Priscilla.”
“What do you mean?”
“The three of us went to this diner the other night—”
“I know. So anyway, Priscilla got all upset and told him things weren’t supposed to be like this.”
“I bet you all think the same thing.”
“Sure. But Priscilla would be the one hurt the most if Scott rejected her. Her whole life revolves around him. She can’t talk about anything else.”
“Really? I think of Priscilla as—I don’t know—self-sufficient.” She’d always been the one to make others feel better, like Perry when he forgot the birthday card and me after my date with Gretchen. It was hard to think of her in such need.
“She keeps a lot bottled up, especially around guys.”
Priscilla sounded uncharacteristically bitter when I spoke to her, also on the phone. “Oh, Molly’s interested all right. She acted like she was just being friendly at that diner, but she was competing with me for the honor of being the most knowledgeable about him.”
“You know, about his plans for school, his vacation last summer, his cousin in Memphis—someplace like that.”
“Molly has a good memory,” I said, “and she’s curious about everyone.”
“I know, but…”
I finished her thought. “But she was there with you at the diner, and why else would that be.”
I wrote in my journal:
I recognize it sounds like a soap opera. If this were published in later life, everyone concerned would be embarrassed. Yet here we are in high school. We treat the present as if it were all-important because we cannot be certain about the future. Our diversion is the present, and it is definitely diverting.
I was flattered that girls trusted me enough to confide in me. Except sometimes I felt like an Ottoman sultan’s eunuch spy. Of course, what I endured was nothing like what those poor spies did. They must have asked themselves, why did they de-ball me when there was nothing wrong with me and I’d done nothing wrong? Unless they were so loyal that they embraced their role in service to the Sultan. I supposed, though I wasn’t sure, that castration at least spared them from sexual desire. I fantasized about some magical way, other than castration, to erase desire and spare myself all my stupid agonizing over girls.
It hardly took a rocket scientist, or psychologist for that matter, to see that our soap operas were an elaborate choreography around sex. In the old days, the ones we read about in history books as if they’d occurred on another planet, people our age were already married and girls were bearing children. Instead of getting at what we might really be after, we talked about feelings, loyalty, fairness.
Once in a while, we broached the subject a little more directly, meaning with excruciating clumsiness. Priscilla’s preference not to wear a bra became a topic of Group interest.
“I find them—I don’t know—too restricting,” she told Perry and me when we were off in a corner at a party. “I mean,” she continued, “I’ll wear one if it saves me from getting into trouble, like having some stupid teacher say something or, you know…”
“I do know,” I said. “I can see Munro insinuating it into class discussion and making you talk about it.”
And how, I asked myself, would that be different from what Perry and I, as well as Priscilla, were doing? His being an old gasbag?
It was annoying to think that even talk about an article of clothing could laser my imagination straight to a woman’s body. What could be stupider! I imagined a serious-minded girl like Priscilla looking at her chest in a mirror and saying to herself, all that fuss over these? Meanwhile, here we were, Perry and I, no more able to climb above our basest instincts than a pair of rodents.
Priscilla acted matter-of-fact. Did she realize that talk about bras did this to guys? Could such an intelligent girl be so naïve that she didn’t? Or did she realize but didn’t care? In her understated, intellectual way, did she care and was secretly gratified?
All the rules about sex were window dressing for two extremes. If a girl liked you in a certain way, your interest was welcome. If she didn’t, you were the dregs. At that party, Perry and I were walking the perimeter of acceptability. One step inside that boundary, and we would be condemned as perverts. Worse, we would have felt the justice of it.
Morality, it turned out, was all about what girls thought of you. So much for those Transcendentalists.
Episode 12. Friendship and Honesty
Molly has appeared several times in these excerpts, but always in a minor role. Now here she is in some of her complexity. Although Priscilla and she had been in competition for Scott’s favors, it didn’t stop them from being friends.
Unknown to my high school friends, Theresa had been my girlfriend for nearly a year, but as told in “I’ll Follow the Sun,” that relationship was over.
Molly had been my most dependable reader our freshman and sophomore years. However, toward the end of sophomore year, she’d told me Camus’s The Stranger, which we’d been assigned in English, “embarrassed” her, and she couldn’t read it to me. On finding out that I’d mentioned her refusal to a mutual friend, she phoned to snap at me, “That was a betrayal,” and hung up. She didn’t speak to me for six months.
She never told me why the novel bothered her. I found someone else to record it, just in time for a class assignment. While reading it, I tried to figure out what had troubled Molly. There were some sensual passages, true, but they seemed pretty innocuous. Maybe it was the atheism of the main character, Meursault. Molly was Catholic, and pretty serious about it.
I was glad midway through junior year when, at long last, she stopped for a word with me between classes. After that, what had been a reading relationship evolved into friendship. We’d have sandwich lunches together amid the metal shelves of old and dusty books in the closet that the library had set aside for my readers and me. I felt comfortable with Molly because I didn’t think of her as either attractive or unattractive. Perhaps two years of reading together had created a form of incest taboo.
During one of our closet conversations, she said, “Morality isn’t simple, is it? I take Church teaching seriously, but sometimes I wonder.”
“About the teaching in general or something specific?” I asked.
“It doesn’t seem realistic to condemn premarital sex.”
That seemed obvious to me, but I knew it was a big step for Molly. I said, “I do think we’re too young to be having children.”
“Of course we’re too young, but sex doesn’t have to mean babies. Not anymore.”
I thought of the care Theresa and I had taken to ensure she didn’t get pregnant. I couldn’t tell Molly about that, so I just nodded.
“Except I think what bothers me isn’t what the Church says,” she continued, “but that if I ever have sex, it will make me too vulnerable. I’d get emotional, like my feelings were all jangled, and all those feelings would be tied up with the guy. I don’t want how I feel to depend on someone else.”
Was this about Scott?
I said, “You think the guy would deliberately hurt you?”
“Guys hurt girls all the time. I know they don’t always mean to, but it doesn’t matter—I worry I’d still come away wounded.”
“It’s funny how you can think in advance about being hurt but not feel able to defend against it.”
“You’re talking about intellect. I’m talking about emotions.”
I’d been accused of intellectualism before. To me, “intellectual” was the highest calling, one that I could only ever aspire to. But Darien High’s students put “intellectual” in the same category as spoiled food and unwashed hair. Knowing it made me cautious in how I discussed emotions, so I stayed quiet.
Molly continued. “I do wish the Church didn’t take such a hardline position.”
This was safer territory for me. “I’m lucky. Religion interests me a lot, but I don’t feel trapped in any one church’s doctrines.”
“I don’t feel trapped. I feel like I’m arguing with it. It’s like arguing with your mom or dad.” Then she turned the question on me. “Don’t you ever feel adrift?”
“All the time. But I doubt that signing up with this or that church would help.”
“It helps me.”
She said, “The Church need to work with kids to solve problems, not pretend that what has gone on forever has suddenly stopped.”
I valued Molly’s openness with me. So I resolved to be equally open with her.
In that spirit, I told her on the phone one day that I wasn’t sure about the sincerity of some of my friends. It was a time when I was feeling misunderstood.
“You’ve got great friends,” Molly said. “Why so cynical?”
“I do have great friends. But you know what I mean, right?”
“Not really. If anyone has a problem, it’s kind of up to you to help them overcome it, don’t you think? I mean, have you ever thought how you make things difficult?”
“Oh, you know, like how you’re so quiet at parties.”
I pictured myself sitting alone at a party, the epitome of futility.
“I can’t hear at parties. People with sight compensate in loud places by reading lips and gestures. Besides, I have nothing to say.”
“You! Of all people, you have nothing to say?”
I stewed over her criticism for several days before deciding she was right. The reasons for the limits of my friendships weren’t the fault of my friends. In addition to my difficulty in hearing in loud places, there was my inability to play vision-dependent games. On top of that was my preoccupation with books and other things that didn’t make for party talk. No one’s fault, or if anyone’s, mine.
I resolved to stop saying anything critical about friends. I was obsessed with honesty, but honesty didn’t require it. It required that I face up to my part in my problems. Fair or not, the only part I could do anything about was me.
It turned out Molly was holding me to a double standard. On the phone a few weeks later, she said, “I don’t have anyone who thinks of me as her best friend. Most of the time I don’t care, but sometimes it hurts. Tonight, it hurts a lot. You understand, right? You’re the only person I can tell.”
Now who was questioning the sincerity of her friends! But I kept my sense of vindication to myself. Besides, her unhappiness put my own in perspective. I knew she was well liked, so if her friends were letting her down, it was at worst because they just weren’t thinking. The last thing they wanted was to neglect or otherwise hurt her. Same with my friends and me.
The immediate cause of Molly’s unhappiness was that her birthday was coming up the next Monday and it looked like none of the usual Group party hosts had remembered. She’d been working at so many jobs to earn money for college, like that ushering job for the senior play, that she’d had no time for parties.
I called Priscilla, ostensibly about something else, in order to get in a word about Molly’s birthday. She took the hint, and on Sunday, the night before Molly’s birthday, she hosted a party for her.
Episode 13. Dancing and Prancing
One evening, when it somehow came about that Priscilla and I were on our own in her home’s furnished basement, where she hosted Group parties, she stood before me and announced, “I’m going to teach you to dance.”
From the couch, I stared up at her in horror.
“It’s easy,” she said. “I’ve seen you tapping to the beat, so I know you have rhythm. Come on.”
Considering how miserable I felt when left out of Group activities, I couldn’t refuse. Rising, I became aware of her before me in a stance of amiable challenge.
“Now,” she said, “loosen up your shoulders.”
I made like a statue with rotating shoulders.
“A little more enthusiasm.” She laid her hand on my right shoulder and urged it to move more emphatically. When she let go, I tried to put conviction into it.
“Okay, keep rotating your shoulders, and now loosen up your arms, backwards and forwards, side to side. Don’t let them dangle like that. Show me you’re the puppet master.”
She took my hands in hers and communicated the motion through her arms. “That’s more like it.” She let go. Without her guidance, I felt sure I had the rhythm all wrong.
“Now move your hips. Go on, rotate, and side to side.”
This dance thing was getting lurid.
“I can’t see any movement,” she said. “Loosen up there. Keep your shoulders and arms moving.” She took my hands again and placed them at her hips. “Like this.”
Contact with her body sent a thrill through me. Even to a glancing touch, a girl’s waist and hips were different from a guy’s, and it wasn’t just the shape. It was in the muscle tone, a stretched softness.
Priscilla continued the downward descent. “Move your feet, one foot forward, then follow with the other. That’s it. Now, back in the same sequence.”
All this bobbing around made me anxious about toppling over. My hips stayed stiff, while my ankles seemed so far away that they were impervious to neural commands.
Priscilla saw my distress. “Here, give me your hands.” I held them out, and she turned them palm-down before placing hers under them. “I’ll help you keep your balance. Now, put your right foot forward, then your left. Don’t stop rotating.”
Steadied by her hands, I stepped forward with my left foot, then with my right, then backwards in the same sequence.
Come to think of it, walking with the cane was a kind of dance step, the way I had to tap to the right as I stepped forward with my left foot and then arc my cane to the left as my right foot stepped to the place my cane had found safe. It had taken months of practice, but by now the habit was ingrained. As with cane technique, dancing would take practice, though more so considering I had simultaneously to gyrate my shoulders and arms, but it might be possible.
“Keep moving,” she said.
Soon, careening around like a two-legged mass of Jell-O, I was dragging her through the basement. Had I been able to see and was doing this in front of a mirror, I’d want to shoot myself.
“Stop,” she instructed, “take a breath.”
But after a brief respite, she said, “Wait while I put a record on. Okay, now, let’s try again.”
* * *
One Wednesday evening in February, harem-guy Scott held a party at his house. A lot of snow had fallen on the weekend, and more was falling that night. Loaded down with coats, scarves, hats and gloves, we stayed out in his yard.
At my side, Scott handed me a snowball. “There’s a tree right ahead of you. See if you can hit it.”
I pulled my arm back and hurled. The snowball made a satisfying thwack.
“That’s great,” he said. “Here’s another.” He paused as he fashioned a snowball. “Now, turn a little to your right. That’s it. See if you can get our mailbox.”
I threw with all my might. No thwack. “Missed,” I said.
“Almost. Try again? This time just a little bit more to the right.”
Scott’s enthusiasm overcame my dislike of being guided in such an overt way. Childhood memories of snowball fights kicking in, I reached down to pick up some snow and molded it into a ball. Then I hurled and scored a hit. Ragged cheers from the Group.
Scott came closer and whispered, “Don’t turn yet and don’t look in that direction, but if you aim maybe fifteen degrees to your left, you’ll get Doug. He’s overdue.”
He handed me a snowball and I hurled.
“Ha ha,” Doug yelled. “Missed me, you cocksucker.”
I reached down hurriedly and made a new missile. While Doug was still laughing at me, I hurled in the direction of his voice. Got him. The next I knew, he’d got me back with a snowball at my shoulder. The shock of it surprised me. It had been so long since I’d played this game. He hit me two more times, while two of my next three missed him. The one that struck home produced a series of gleeful complaints.
Afterwards, I wrote in my journal: “It was the first party I could honestly say I participated in.” To say these people weren’t truly friends, as I’d already realized, wasn’t about them at all. It was about me and frustration.
The strenuous activity, abetted by the cold, left me aching all over. I went to bed, tired but with peace of mind.
Equality. It might be relative, but it felt good.
Episode 14. Emily
A girl named Emily, who sounded severe when she spoke in the social studies course we were both taking, made a point one day of walking with me to my next class. “Are you looking for a reader?” she said.
It happened I was. We scheduled twice-weekly sessions for the period before social studies. She’d meet me in the book closet set aside for me by the school library.
Emily never attended Group parties, but she was friends with several members. In the library closet, despite the cold metal surfaces of the shelves holding row after row of dusty books, she was warm and even funny, in a quietly ironic way.
One reading session, I said I was surprised I hadn’t really been aware of her before this year.
“I choose to spend my time on my own or with my family.”
“Do you ever find it—I don’t know—limiting?”
“Sometimes I wish my parents didn’t expect me to entertain guests. They’re always hosting corporate parties.”
“I’d hate that.”
“I have a duty to them.”
“Duty? I think you’re devoted to them.”
“They’re the two best people I know.” Then she said, “But about your not being aware of me, to be honest, your disability made me nervous.”
She’d told me before that she kept her deepest feelings to herself, and so I was pleased she’d opened up to me.
But then our teacher assigned Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night without giving me enough notice to arrange to have it taped. I’d enjoyed the talking book narration of Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. But the only way I would get any sense at all of Armies of the Night was to skim, and the only way I could think to skim was to have Emily read the first sentence of each paragraph. I’d be short-changing myself, but the alternative was reading none at all.
At the start of our reading session before the class discussion, I explained what I needed.
Emily said, “Are you serious?”
“I don’t have much choice.”
She sighed, then viciously turned pages as she jumped from paragraph to paragraph. Distracted by her annoyance, I got even less out of the book than I’d hoped.
My next mistake, several sessions later, was to ask how she’d feel about getting together after school.
She sighed with exasperation. “Not only do I not want to be more than a friend; I don’t even want to be a friend.”
“Just to talk,” I added. She didn’t deign to respond.
Nothing I said could have done justice to her impromptu, amazingly grammatical rejection, which I wrote down word-for-word as soon as I could.
In the days that followed, mortification transformed into respect. By being so honest, she’d shown how “good” she was. I was hardly the only high school student who fetishized honesty, but my obsession with “the good” was unusual, even eccentric. It had begun with my reading Dostoyevsky’s novels about the saintly Prince Myshkin and Alyosha.
Emily didn’t show up for our next reading session. I’d need to find someone to take her place, but decided to hold off until the following scheduled session, just in case. When I walked into the library closet that next time, she was waiting.
Sitting down across from her, I debated whether to say something, but it would only come between us if I didn’t.
“I hate to put you on the spot, but you do realize we missed our last session, right?”
“How can that be? What day?”
I told her, even though she was too compulsive to have forgotten.
She got out her notebook. “I don’t see it here.”
“But we always meet then.”
“I guess I was in language lab. I totally forgot.”
I concluded I had to cut back further on honesty. It already meant refraining from saying anything critical about my friends. I now added showing interest in getting to know someone better. Simply by making such a suggestion with Emily, I’d made her uncomfortable.
As overeager to please as I’d been before, now I just tried not to annoy her. Paying close attention to how I acted, I noticed I snorted when I found something funny and rumbled “Hm” when I disagreed with something she’d read. Sometimes when I made a responsive noise like that, she let out a deep sigh. Maybe I imagined it.
But I didn’t just imagine it when I said her name once too often.
“What do you think, Emily?”
She snapped, “I hate it when people say my name.”
Okay, I guessed it could sound kind of patronizing.
A favorite subject in school and among parents was “maturity,” as in, “She’s so mature,” or, “How can he be so immature?” It went alongside that other scientific-sounding judgment, “socially awkward,” the euphemism for “strange.”
I said to Emily, “People are always talking about maturity. What is maturity, do you think? Are there many mature people in our grade? What is social maturity anyway?”
She sighed. “You know, the things you talk about are either too intellectual or stupid, or both.”
I got the “too intellectual” part, but “stupid”? Didn’t it mean, I was tempted to ask, I was at last fitting in?
One day she told me, “You think too highly of me. I’m the most average person you know.” Another day she was “the most terrible person you know.”
At the time, I interpreted her claims as revealing a doleful modesty. Later I realized they were part of her ongoing effort to keep me at a distance.
* * *
“You shouldn’t have told Emily you were interested in her,” Molly scolded me on the phone.
“I didn’t. I only suggested we meet after school.”
“It could have felt like that to her.”
“Are you saying it did?”
“I’m not speaking for her. I’m telling you what I think.”
“Okay, so what if I had been interested in her, to use your phrase? For the sake of argument.”
“It would be wrong.”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t be interested in a girl?”
“You’re entitled to be interested in a girl. But she’s doing a job.”
Molly had read for me for two years before getting irate over the Camus episode. We’d since fought like cats and dogs, but at least she wasn’t accusing me of having behaved badly with her.
I said, “She volunteered, like you. She can un-volunteer, like you did.”
“She’s doing the right thing by you. You need to do the right thing by her.”
“All I did was suggest we meet after school. If I asked you the same thing, would you interpret that to mean I was interested in you?”
“That would be different.”
“Because we’re friends.”
I was touched Molly said that. But instead of letting her know, I stayed on point. “Emily was becoming a friend, too, so how is what I said to her wrong?”
“Like I said, by your asking her when she was trapped.”
“I didn’t trap her!”
“She’s in that tiny closet with you, all by herself. How could she not feel trapped?”
“Is that what she told you?”
“She told you I made her feel trapped.”
“She told me the situation made her feel trapped.”
“Which means I did.”
“I guess. Yeah, you made her feel like she had two choices. Either she walked out or she stayed but rejected you. No one likes to be put in that position.”
“She had a third choice,” I said: “‘Yes, let’s get away from this prison cell of a closet and talk.’”
“But she didn’t want to, so it wasn’t a real choice.”
“This is ridiculous. If I’d said, ‘Wanna sleep together?’ maybe, just maybe, I could see your point.”
“No need to be crude,” Molly snapped. But she didn’t hang up.
My rhetorical point made, I said, “It wasn’t as if I was trying to hurt her. Couldn’t she just as easily have been pleased that I thought of her as more than a reader?”
“You can’t put people on the spot, that’s all.”
Because Molly felt so strongly about what she said, I had to take seriously the possibility that I’d created a bad situation. But to concede even this much would be to deny my own feelings. I thought I’d been brave to broach the idea with Emily.
A popular question of the day was whether men and women were fundamentally different, one of those annoying either/or, “nature versus nurture” imponderables. Other than physiological differences, I’d long believed we were all human beings. The differences were between people, not between men and women. But Molly’s harangue gave me a glimmer of how men might be different from women, or at least boys from girls. If Emily’s and my situations had been reversed, I’d have felt flattered.
Then I thought about it some more. If I were working for a girl from an impulse of sympathy and without any feeling of attraction, and then she tried to take it beyond that… Well, I’d find that awkward, wouldn’t I?
I hated to think Emily was reading for me out of sympathy. But why else would someone like her volunteer as a reader? Besides, sympathy was an emotion that reflected a person’s better side. It was up to me to transform myself into more than just someone in an obvious need of assistance.
But what mattered right then was whether Emily and I could get past the awkwardness. I liked her. I respected her. And she was a good reader.
Meanwhile, as she’d done after the Camus fiasco, Molly stopped speaking to me.
Episode 15. Trailblazer
Note: Perry is the friend who called me Boswell to his Samuel Johnson. Although precociously active in town Democratic politics, he seemed the most likely among us to end up in a corporate role, which he did. But as this week’s excerpt reveals, despite his focus on the future, he was generous in the present.
Falling into conversation after Mr. Munro’s English class, Perry and I walked together to the library closet where I was to meet Emily for a reading session. I knew he had an ulterior motive because he’d become interested in her. I suspected my own interest in her had triggered it, but I’d pretty much given up on my chances.
As we entered the tiny room, Emily perked up. “Oh, hi, Perry. I hear you’re going skiing this weekend.”
“A group of us. Want to come?”
“Love to, but I already have plans.”
“I’ve never skied in my life,” he said wryly.
“You’ll love it, believe me.”
I worried that Perry and I were becoming competitive. It started when Mr. Munro assigned Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela. The story was simple enough: A maid’s widowed master attempts to seduce and even rape her, but then he makes everything right by marrying her, thus elevating her to his station. Hence the subtitle, Or, Virtue Rewarded. Two hundred years later, the subtitle seemed just too naïve and cruel.
I read a hundred and fifty of the six hundred pages, while Perry read the Cliffs Notes and none of the actual book. I felt guilty for not finishing it, but at least, I told myself, I hadn’t resorted to a commercial outline. Meanwhile, in class, Perry spoke as if he knew the novel inside out.
I felt so conflicted, both about my shortcut and Perry’s use of notes, that I had to talk it through with someone who had a reliable moral compass. Emily’s dedication to honesty made her the obvious choice.
“At least you didn’t read just the first sentence of each paragraph,” she said.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be telling her about the only other book I’d shortchanged.
Then she said, “But what’s this about Perry?”
“You know, Cliffs Notes. Everyone uses them—except me.”
“No one I know uses them. I thought Perry was better than that.”
I winced. First, I’d sabotaged whatever hope a fellow Group member might have had with Gretchen, and now I was sticking it to Perry. Both times, I should have known the consequences. Or worse, I had known the consequences and gone ahead anyway for my own gratification.
Perry called that afternoon. “I just got ticked off by Emily for using Cliffs Notes. You told her, right?”
I steeled myself against the harangue I deserved.
“She wanted to give me a hard time, but she had to admit she was impressed. Would you believe she even laughed? Not really a laugh, you understand, but a chuckle with Emily is like someone else doubling over with mirth. She told me, ‘I admire your glibness.’ Glibness! Take that, Boswell. Talk about virtue rewarded.”
He was happy, and no wonder.
Then he said, “What do you think, shall I invite her to a movie?”
“Seems like she’d be happy if you did.”
He ended the call gloating, “The price of Perry’s stock goes up on the Darien Socialite Exchange.”
She accepted his invitation to the movie. Then he asked her to the prom, and she again accepted. But she made it clear their friendship was to stay platonic.
During the phase when she’d been telling me she was “the most average” and “the most terrible” person I knew, she’d gone on to tell me she was “frigid.” At the time, I hadn’t exactly known what that meant, but whatever it was, it sounded melancholy and made me concerned for her. Perhaps she really did suffer from that condition, except now I thought I knew better.
* * *
Meanwhile Doug was showing signs of interest in Gretchen, the girl from that dismal date he’d choreographed for me. I felt like a trailblazer scouting out my friends’ eventual love interests.
“I’ve never had a cold in my life,” Doug complained, blowing his nose loudly down the phone connection. “It sucks.”
A veteran of colds, I was unsympathetic. “Since you’ve never had one before, chances are you’ll shake it off in no time.”
“God, I hope so. Anyway, Gretchen’s coming over tonight.”
“Gretchen’s coming over and you’re complaining about a stupid cold?”
“That’s what makes it so annoying. Listen, I thought you should know. I mean…”
“It’s fine, Doug. You gave me a fair shot. Maybe the best man won.”
“Hey, of course the best man won. I was bound to in the end.” He blew his nose.
Episode 16. College on a Hill
Mr. Munro is the English teacher whose strengths and foibles are revealed in “Meditating on the Transcendentalists.” In that excerpt, I explain why, at that time, I supported America’s involvement in Vietnam.
In memoir passages I haven’t excerpted, I recount how I was accepted by Yale early in the fall of my senior year. That winter I stayed overnight with a Darien High graduate at Yale and felt alienated. But I’d felt that way in new places before and knew to discount it.
In March, Dean Wall offered me a place at Amherst.
Yet, even though I’d held back from writing to accept Yale’s offer, I remained undecided. An urban campus wasn’t a reason to turn down Yale. If all went well there, I’d be taken up by my studies. But I’d fallen for the atmosphere I’d found in Amherst. Could I possibly be more frivolous? What mattered beyond education was reputation, here and abroad. The clear choice was Yale.
A high school classmate on Amherst’s waiting list offered to give me a ride when he drove up to take a second look. This was Brad, a boy from Chicago who had invited me to his home all the way back in ninth grade and told me about the prank he and his friends had played on a blind pedestrian. Now he said a Darien High graduate from the previous year who had gone to Amherst had offered to show us around. This guy, Brad told me, had written a paper in Mr. Munro’s English class on the work of one Lio Dradnats.
“Ever heard of him?”
“Spell it.” He did. I said, “No.”
“Standard Oil spelled backwards. Get it? It completely fooled Munro. He gave the paper an A.”
I was feeling better disposed toward Mr. Munro. Introducing us to T.S. Eliot, he’d read “Prufrock” so movingly that I broke my rule again about sucking up to teachers by going to his desk to thank him. Eliot wrote the poetry that was in me. Images of the anaesthetized patient against the evening sky and newspapers drifting down the street affected me more than any poetry had before, despite the anesthesia reference, evoking memories of surgery. In turn, Mr. Munro had read a poem of mine to the class and praised it.
Brad and I arrived in Amherst one fine spring day, the air just as fresh as it had been the previous autumnal late August, only this time soft as velvet. Guided by Lio Dradnats’ creator, we strolled through the college town’s streets and in and out of stores. There was none of the frenetic atmosphere of the stores around Darien. Instead of metal and plastic, they seemed constructed of new wood, and the sales assistants were chatty.
In the afternoon, a meeting we hadn’t known to expect was held outdoors at the college. I sat on the lawn alongside Brad and hundreds of members of the Amherst community. That month’s news was dominated by Nixon’s decision to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. In the two years since I’d been the solitary vote favoring America’s intervention in Vietnam, I’d come around to agreeing that the war wasn’t about communism, containment or falling dominoes, but about an indigenous movement seeking to overthrow a regime rooted in colonialism.
Given the assembled group’s clear unanimity about the wrongness of the war, the debate was over how to show opposition. A student followed by a professor, then by another student, an administrator, and so on, all in an orderly manner, stood up and projected his voice across the lawn. Various proposals were advanced: participation in antiwar rallies, a boycott of weapons manufacturers, a vigil, a sit-in at nearby Westover Air Force Base. All spoke with moderate voices making reasoned arguments.
Knowing Thoreau had lived in this same Massachusetts, if farther east, I recalled the discussion in Mr. Munro’s class about “On Civil Disobedience.” As I had then, I worried that Thoreau’s claim for conscience could be a recipe for anarchy. He’d advocated a distinction between just and unjust laws:
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
But who was anyone to decide which laws to honor and which to resist? Mr. Munro had pointed out that although Thoreau had defied the law by refusing to pay the Mexican War tax, he’d bowed to it by consenting to the penalty—being jailed. Not a wholly satisfying resolution, as Mr. Munro, too, seemed to think. Even so, “On Civil Disobedience” was surely the blueprint for the responsible expression of protest that I was witnessing here at Amherst. The participants were willing to demonstrate against government policy, but they’d also accept the consequences of arrest and possible jailing.
I visualized Thoreau, Emerson and other Transcendentalists by a lake on a long-ago spring day, the air just as pure and caressing. They were debating how to resist slavery or the war with Mexico in a similarly articulate, respectful manner.
I’d used to think that Thoreau’s sojourn in Walden had been an exercise in escapism, but nothing was escapist about even a single night in jail, and it seemed the only reason his stay hadn’t lasted longer was that a friend had insisted on bailing him out.
I’d also overlooked the radical change that the Transcendentalists represented compared to the first European settlers of Massachusetts. The Puritans had run a moralistic police state every bit as repressive as the Soviet Union’s or China’s. Yet they believed in predestination, the notion that a few people were destined for heaven and the rest for hell regardless of acts done on earth. In that light, their harsh laws against moral lapses like Hester Prynne’s adultery had never made sense to me. What was the point of punishing such transgressions if each person’s fate was decided before birth?
The Puritans had been part of my introduction to America. Reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, I’d felt suffocated in a hermetically-sealed world of guilt and shame. They had captured what I found depressing about this country: the isolationist patriotism, my high school classmates’ anti-intellectualism, the intense summer heat.
Yet the Puritans John Winthrop had drawn from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount the image of the “city upon a hill.” True, it had become a symbol for the ideology, American “exceptionalism,” invoked to justify occupations of countries like Haiti and the Philippines. But it also stood for idealism. Even those foreign occupations, misguided and cruel as they’d been, were driven by the announced intention to improve other people’s conditions. On the one hand, there had been slavery; on the other, a war to end it. On the one hand, there’d been Jim Crow; now there was a vital, broad-based civil rights movement.
I’d grown to admire the willingness of individual Americans to criticize their country, much more so than I remembered English people criticizing theirs. In that light, the lovely image of a city upon a hill was an apt symbol for America’s best aspirations.
And here I was, at a college on a hill, observing a huge meeting in which arguments were being presented forcefully but civilly. At Amherst, there could be debates that went beyond polarizing “either/or” arguments such as nature/nurture or God does/doesn’t exist. Contemplating it all as I sat on the lawn, I’d rarely been so moved, even enthralled.
It was early evening when Brad dropped me off at my home. I went straight to my desk to type my acceptance letter to Amherst.
On May 11, 1972, five hundred members of the Amherst College and neighboring communities, including Amherst President John William Ward, were arrested for blocking the entrance to Westover Air Force Base.
Here, as in the second episode, I use Dean Wall’s real name, against my usual practice in this memoir, because I trust that people who knew him will see in my depiction the authentic man he was in search of the right answer. I’m not sure such open, honest searching would be acceptable today. Political correctness is an understandable reaction to bias against certain groups, including disabled people, and untethered prejudice does incalculable harm. But it can also undermine the free exploration of sincerely-held beliefs. Dean Wall’s reservations were founded not on ill will, but on his understanding of the college’s past experience.
Curiously, Dean Wall and the previous student who had caused him to doubt Amherst’s fitness for blind students were friends and attended Amherst football games together long after the student’s graduation. The student went on to become an expert in constitutional law and an esteemed advocate for disability rights. He died at a rather young age in 2015. Classmates published a warm remembrance in the college’s alumni magazine.
Episode 17. Combatting Inhibition
Our last summer before scattering to many different colleges, The Group discovered alcohol. Beer seemed to encourage talk and cause us to find everything funny. When inebriated, I stopped fighting myself over when to speak and whether I had anything to say anyway.
One evening, it was decided to hold a party at the end of a remote street where it turned into woods. As Perry and I drove along the road leading there, he noticed headlights in his rearview mirror. When we arrived, the party was already going strong. Chugging down a beer, Perry mentioned the headlights.
Doug said, “I hope it wasn’t the cops.”
Perry said, “But Ossifer, I’ze not derrunk.”
That was when the police car turned the corner toward us. One guy ran off into the bushes, and the rest of us hurled beer cans in his wake.
The police car came to a halt and a door opened. “Hi, everyone. Having a party?”
Mumbled responses. Perry’s imitation of a drunk floated into my head, and it was all I could do not to blurt out, “Zho obzhervant, Ossifer.”
“We’ve received some complaints of noise. I think you’ll have to calm things down. I don’t suppose you’ve been drinking?”
More mumbles, which he apparently chose to interpret as denials.
“Well, like I said, time to break this thing up.” He got back in the car and drove away.
Doug called out, “Anyone who wants is welcome to come to the Doug Mansion.” We spent the rest of the evening chatting in his yard and swiping at mosquitos.
* * *
One day in Mr. Munro’s class, Doug had said he liked Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar because of “all the sword fighting,” pronouncing the “w.” Mr. Munro exhaled in disdain. When Doug realized his error, the staccato of his laugh rose above everyone else’s, including mine. He was fine with blunders; they were funny.
Many of my own blunders were due one way or the other to blindness, which I didn’t find funny. One blunder that summer was an effort to talk honestly and openly about that very thing—blindness.
More than a virtue, honesty was seductive, holding out the promise that I could both understand and be understood. But, as I’d already learned the hard way, honesty had limits. It was bad if it meant criticizing friends, which Molly had convinced me was “cynical.” It was also bad, as my experience with Emily had taught me, if it meant admitting attraction to a girl, excruciating for both me and the girl.
Doug and I were at his house when he played a Bee Gees’ album. The song “Holiday,” came on, with the lines:
Millions of eyes can see,
Yet why are mine so blind?
When the someone else is me
It’s unkind, it’s unkind.
I said, “‘It’s unkind.’ That’s how I feel sometimes.”
Doug murmured something and escaped into the kitchen. I felt mortified and unbelievably stupid for pointing out the metaphorical lines’ trite literal relevance to me.
In America, you were told to talk about your feelings. It made sense. Sometimes, feeling bad about something I’d said or done, I could ease my discomfort by putting it in words and having a friend give me perspective. But expressing feelings about vision loss was much too “heavy.” Here was a third limit to honesty.
Still, why was I wrong to voice these feelings? Eventually I came up with a theory. While openness could be a gratifying, cathartic act of self-expression, it could give listeners an equally cathartic perspective on themselves. Listening to someone’s description of how badly a date had gone might help listeners feel better about their own dates from hell. But for sighted people, the experience of blindness was too outside the norm to be shared. For listeners, there was no catharsis; just pity.
From that point of view, my former blind friend Theresa’s immersion in the society of other blind people made sense. The year she and I had been together, it had felt good to speak openly about such things.
But words were one thing. When classmates recognized they could help, they acted. Doug had made my date with Gretchen possible by doing the driving, and Priscilla had forced me to confront my terror of dancing.
Still, I didn’t completely give up on words. In ninth grade, Doug had beaten me at chess. I hadn’t yet obtained a chessboard with alternating raised black and lower white squares, and so I’d had to visualize the game in my head and ask him to move my pieces for me. When he checkmated me, he was triumphant: “I win! I win!”
That last summer before college, trying to clear the air and taking another stab at honesty, I called him on his gloating.
“No, man,” he replied, “it wasn’t what you thought. I admired how you followed the game and told me where you wanted me to put your pieces. I was really happy to beat you. Want me to beat you again?”
Episode 18. Summer’s End
Note: This concluding episode consists of two excerpts.
Molly sat next to me on the couch in my study. It was the first time she’d been in my home.
She said, “I remember the way people used to look at me. Thank god I’m no longer the boringly efficient, gawky girl I used to be.”
Most of the way through high school, I, too, had thought of her as conventional, helpful and yes, efficient. And tall. That had been the extent of it.
I said, “The way I think about you has changed, that’s for sure. In ninth and tenth grade, you were a loyal reader. I really didn’t think of you any other way. It was great when our arrangement turned into friendship.”
“The way I think about you changed, too.”
I made a guess. “During my War of 1898 talk. I was touched by what you said after class.”
There were other, less pleasant memories, but I wasn’t going to bring them up, and it seemed she wasn’t, either.
“So, now you’re off to Fairfield University,” I said. “Do you know what you’ll be majoring in?”
“Um, some kind of social science or service field. I know I want to do something that helps people, but more than that, who knows? What about you?”
“English lit major and psych minor. I’d like to be a writer, but if that doesn’t work out, like you, I’d want to do something socially useful.”
“Always thinking ahead.”
“Hardly. English lit isn’t exactly the most practical subject.”
“But you’re clear about your options.” Her voice told me she was looking right at me.
I shook my head. I saw how I’d created that impression. “I have a long way to go before I feel clear about much of anything, if I ever do.”
“I wish I felt more certain about things,” she said, now facing the small window before us. “I think I’m too vulnerable.”
“Too vulnerable to be certain? I don’t follow.”
“You know, that whole thing with Scott.”
I took a risk. “That was funny, don’t you think?”
“Funny because we girls were acting so stupid?”
“Scott hardly came off as a genius.”
“He’s a good guy,” she said.
“He is. I didn’t used to think so, but I was wrong. I think I was jealous that all you girls were attracted to him.”
“Crazy,” she said, following her own train of thought. “It made me realize I still feel—well, not vulnerable—I don’t think I’m weak. I guess I wonder if I’m feminine enough.”
I’d noticed she was wearing perfume. I’d known her do so only once before, during graduation festivities.
I said, “I think of you as feminine.” No need to elaborate that I’d only lately had this sense of her.
She shifted, edging maybe a tenth of an inch closer. “I think boys are afraid of me. I think I intimidate guys.”
“I keep hearing how pretty you’ve become. If guys really are afraid, that might be why.”
She turned her gaze on me. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Blood rushed to my face. Surely she’d known she’d make me blush.
She said, “I know you can’t see me, but you get such a good sense of people.”
I shook my head. I disliked it when people claimed I had extrasensory powers of sight, but this felt different—intimate. I hoped she didn’t make the wrong inference from my reflexive headshake.
“I know you didn’t used to think so,” she persisted.
I found my voice. “You didn’t let me.”
“I didn’t let anyone because I didn’t feel it myself.”
Still unwilling to validate her ESP conviction, I held back from answering her question. But it was now impossible to avoid thinking of her physically. She’d once mentioned she always wore dresses or skirts. Her thigh was touching mine. On this summer evening, was it bare?
I felt emboldened to ask, “Can I touch your hair?”
“Sure.” As she spoke, she turned to the window again, presenting her profile to me.
I hesitated, as if at a crossroads. Then I ran my fingers along her hair and found it flowed luxuriously down to her shoulders.
“Dark brown,” she said.
She turned back to face me, and I traced her ears, cheeks and forehead. But I was too self-conscious to interpret her features. And too unpracticed. I’d come to know Theresa’s face slowly. It took time.
I lowered my hand.
“Is that all?” she said.
I turned away. “Yes, thanks.”
I’d first assumed she’d been generous to allow me to touch her. But now I dared to wonder if she wasn’t so much giving me permission as wanting me to.
If so, why my hesitation? Were our past fights getting in the way? Maybe I still resented the times she’d cut me off after Camus’s The Stranger. Well, not that so much, but more likely how she raked me over the coals about Emily. Come to think of it, what really had been behind her anger that time? It was one thing to try to repair the damage between friends, meaning between Emily and me. But why then cut me off?
She said, “You’re sure?”
I inhaled her scent.
No, I wasn’t angry with her. Far from it. Maybe I felt protective. Long ago in the library closet, she’d told me the idea of sex made her afraid because she thought guys might “wound” her. I’d been moved to witness her wrestling with feelings she found difficult to think about, never mind talk about. I’d never want to be the one to wound her.
Afterwards, I was to ask myself more questions. Had my theory about our incest taboo after two years of reading together been more than an idle thought? Had all my hopes and fantasies about the girls I liked at Darien High taken me to such an elevated place that I couldn’t handle the real thing?
Instead of finding out if dreams really could come true, instead of telling all my self-analysis to go to hell—as surely any self-respecting American guy would have done, instead of holding her face in both hands and kissing her, though all but shaking with desire, I turned back to her and said, “I’m sure.”
I promised myself an evening with Dad, after he came home from the office, so that he could give me a tour of the garden he tended almost every day. I kept my commitment, even though at the last minute the Group organized a drinking party. The late summer’s evening was sultry, and I reveled in the lushness of the garden as Dad showed me his trees and plants and told me his plans for improvements.
“I have to watch the tomatoes every day so I can pick them when they’re just right and before they weigh too heavily on the plant.”
At another spot, he said, “Here I’d like to try my luck with bonsai, you know, those miniature Japanese trees?”
“I’ve read about them.”
“Delightful. Let me show you the azaleas. I grow them because they can bloom anywhere from April into August in this climate.”
The garden was part of his life that needed no argument. Only Mum’s suggestions for vegetables stopped it from being his exclusive domain.
Dad’s voice came to me as it had in my childhood: loving and reassuring. Poignant, because its very uniqueness made it vulnerable. Like the last survivor of an endangered species, it had to be treasured.
Meanwhile, Mum was washing dishes in the kitchen, the sound of the radio station I disliked just audible through the open window. I sensed that one day, even this would turn into a fond memory, like those of her hanging out the washing on the line in the back gardens of our Harrow and Sheffield homes, images I could never have anticipated I’d look back on so warmly.
That evening in the garden, much more came back to me in a wave of nostalgia made acute by apprehension about a new world of strangers in September. But I wouldn’t give in, as if doing so were an option. I had to find out if self-reliance and self-discovery were possible even for me.
That was why, though in that moment I felt more contented than I had in a long time, I’d gravitate next day back to Group parties, and after that north to Amherst, and after that…