This is a true story. (When have I ever told one that wasn’t?)
It was 1983 and I was living in Lawrence, Kansas. In another month I was going to enter the worst period of my life, bar none. Thank god I didn’t know that.
I’d pretty much exhausted my options on what I was going to do next. I’d already dropped out of college twice. I’d let my apartment go, I was sleeping on the couch at Jake and Chuck’s place and they were getting sick of me. I’d had enough of working for the jerk boss at Pizza Hut so I’d quit. What to do, what to do ....
So one night it was two or three in the morning and three of us from “The Gang” were laying around on the floor watching some stupid crap on TV, both of them smoking dope, me pretending to. “The Gang” had a female contingent that lived in another group house right across the parking lot from us. “The Female Gang.” They’d all been out doing something and they came over to crash our “party,” such as it was.
The only one of them I can remember clearly was Susan Strobb. She’d had a little to drink that night, which had kind of loosened her tongue, but she was far from drunk. She was standing there, hadn’t been through the door even five minutes, surveying all of us proto-slacker deadbeat dudes sprawled out on the floor, and she says “So, who wants to fuck?”
Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life and this goes on all the time in the rest of the world, but I can’t think of one single other time I’ve personally been involved in such a thing. And it’s not like Susan should have to beg or anything. She was very short, four foot ten and sensitive about it, but she was cute, ballsy, curvy, and she dressed like a trashy early-eighties Madonna. I doubt she’d appreciate that reference though. More like Madonna crossed with the Cramps. (For those not familiar with the Cramps, the band contains several “women” who are in fact inexpert transvestites.) She was just doing a typical guy thing: I’m a little bit snockered, it has made me horny, I’d like to sleep with somebody without having to go through a lot of rigmarole, who’s going to help me out here?
And all of us hip, cool, with-it, cynical, arch, clever guys looked away like she hadn’t said anything. Not even so much as a flip remark. She had just flattened every one of us.
(I’d just like to say it now and get it over with: I’M SORRY ALREADY!! I was a weak spineless little mama’s boy! I’m SORRY life dumped an opportunity like that in my lap and I didn’t have the balls to do anything about it! Please, give me another chance!!)
Man, Susan was really cool. She was a KU student and she’d stuck out the bullshit long enough that they were finally letting her do interesting stuff. Behavioral studies involving pigeons. She took me to her lab one day to see one she was working with who she called “Clay” (get it?). She opened the door of his cage, gave a command, and he flew out and landed on her hand, the down from its feathers billowing in the air. She gave another command and he flew back in.
She was usually playing the part of the ballsy party girl, but she had a softer side that she might show you if you played your cards right, and only if there was nobody else around. She told me once that she didn’t like to be touched. She blamed it on the fact that she was so short and people had treated her like a toy her whole life. I bet it was a little more complicated than that.
For the space of a couple of months, Susan was trying to decide who would be better to pursue as a boyfriend, me or this other idiot named Larry. If we were her top two prospects, then the pickings must have been very slim indeed.
I can only remember one even vaguely romantic moment between us. “The Gang” and “The Female Gang” were all at this dumb Lawrence bar called the Sanctuary and I was experimenting with exactly how drunk I could get without puking. I had yet to go all the way over the line, so the prospect still kind of intrigued me. Me and Susan were outside on a patio behind the bar. It was very cold, but when you’re drunk, who cares? And then, wouldn’t you know it, I had one of those goddamned BLACK-OUT PERIODS that still happens to me today if I go too far with the booze, and so there’s a period of several seconds where I can’t remember what happened. At the point where my memory resumes, Susan is kissing me, and it’s so sweet, even falling-down drunk I could get the message: “I want to let go of this mask.”
I don’t remember who started kissing who, and for most of my life between then and now I’ve pretended like it’s a big mystery: Did she start it or did I? As if there could be any doubt in the mind of any sane human who’s read this far. Of course she started it. Like you even vaguely had the balls to do it yourself, you idiot.
So we broke away and I probably looked startled. I mean, I know I definitely wanted to kiss her and everything, but I considered the possibility so remote that the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind in a long time. Being a sissy, you can’t just get what you want and like it, you have to go through that stunned-rabbit-in-the-headlights thing first. And that was the last thing Susan could deal with. I could have gotten mad, laughed, any strong emotion would do, it would have led to the next thing. But no, I sat there looking like a weakling.
So Susan backtracked. I really can’t get into a relationship right now, you know. Everything is just too complicated. Too, too, too complicated. I don’t know why I did that really, just bzzzzz bzz bzz bzzzz ....
I don’t remember the words after that, just the tone of voice. Now that I’m no longer an idiot, I can decode the subtext: IF ANYTHING IS GOING TO COME OF THIS, YOU HAVE TO TAKE PART OF THE RESPONSIBILITY, STUPID. But I didn’t. I took what she was saying at face value and started nodding vigorously like an idiot, yes yes yes, I understand completely, too complicated and everything.
When Jake and Chuck got too sick of me, I moved back to Wichita, WHERE MOM WAS, so I could get those apron strings tied around me a little bit tighter. For Susan that narrowed down the competition considerably, and I heard from Chuck that she ended up marrying Larry. A few years later, he was riding a horse and not paying enough attention, he fell off, the horse stepped on his head, and he died. A happy-go-lucky idiot right up to the very end.
I am telling this story today because I walked to Denny’s this morning for breakfast, and damned if Roxy Music’s “More Than This” didn’t show up on their piped-in music service. It’s a track from their 1982 album “Avalon,” one of the prettiest records I’ve ever heard. “The Gang” almost exclusively listened to hipper-than-thou cynical music, Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Jam, Replacements ... and yet almost all of us had a copy of this ineffably pretty record, “Avalon.” Somehow it was able to cut through our defense mechanisms.
One afternoon Susan invited me over to “The Female Gang’s” group house, all her roommates being somewhere else at the time, and made me lunch. It was the best damned chicken I ever ate. And she was playing “Avalon” on the tape deck.