This was later: my first year of college. I was living at home, and my parents had gone to bed, my brother and sisters. I was downstairs by myself, late in the evening, when I took up a pen and sat to write a letter. The blak page before me was both intimidating and exciting. I could sense its potential. I wanted to fill it full of words, words that I meant, everything I felt. It was turning out to be a lonely year. Again, transitions. Senior year, I’d finally adjusted to life in high school. And just as I had, it ended, and I had to adjust to college. As far as classes went, I was successful. More successful than high school even. Three As and two A minuses my first semester, or at least, that was what I was heading for, how I was tracking. We weren’t there yet. This was mid-semester. I’d opted for Temple University. It was the only place I’d applied despite decent SAT scores and finishing twenty-second in a class of three hundred people. Temple was a commuter school. They’d given me a scholarship in their bid to court more kids from suburban schools, but the college experience there wasn’t as it would have been if I’d lived away from home, if I’d moved to a dorm. Most of the students at Temple worked part-time jobs. I worked. I was still at the nursing home, washing pots and pans, mopping floors, and once class was finished for the day, everyone was off. On their way somewhere else. Which made it difficult to find friends.

Faith was there. She’d opted for Temple as well, and I sometimes ate lunch with her. I bumped into other Cheltenham people, Anne Schmolze and Noah Goodman, and though we hadn’t been close in high school, we became closer now. I looked around to make friends and formed connections in some of my classes. But none of these connections developed into lasting relationships. At least, not yet. I wanted a girlfriend, too, of course, and I looked for one, someone to set my sights on. But I still didn’t know how to meet women. There was no one in my classes I was attracted to. And I couldn’t just go up cold and start talking to random girls on campus. Not to mention, the ghost of Lana lingered, which was why I wrote this letter. I had to put it to rest. I had to tell her everything. Faith had told me that Lana went to Arcadia, that she was still living at home. I had recognized at the time we graduated that it was over, that we’d never get together, but I had to provide some last words.  I had to write an elegy for the love I’d felt over the last four years.

As the end of our senior year closed in, I had to face the truth it wasn’t going to happen. That I was a coward. That the awkward kiss I had shared with Susan Osmond in the back of a toy store in the mall in eighth grade might very well be the only contact I would ever have with a girl in my life. I hadn’t gone to the soph hop or the junior prom. And I’d only ended up at the senior prom through the intercession of one of my older (by two/three years) coworkers at the nursing home, who it seems wanted to get dressed up and do it because one of her friends had been asked. In short, she let it be known secondhand that she would go with me if I asked, knew I didn’t have a date and gave her friend my phone number, and it still took me about ten minutes after I called her to work up the courage to do so. If I couldn’t act on a sure thing, it was no wonder I’d never been able to speak to Lana.

I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go. The only reason I went was because it was something everyone did, and I didn’t want to feel like an outsider. I was among the last to get a date, and all my friends’ rented limos were filled already. Transportation was a concern, since I didn’t have my driver’s license, but this was another case where Lex came through. He couldn’t go because he’d dropped out and it wasn’t open to him, but he wanted me to go, so he dressed up in a chauffeur’s outfit, complete with a bowler hat. We washed and waxed his parents’ Dodge Neon, and he drove me and my coworker down to the city, where the prom was being held in the Old City Sheraton. Lana was going, I knew. Faith had told me. She was taking a friend who went to Abington. I had, of course, dreamed of asking her, but I knew it wouldn’t work. Aside from the fact I didn’t have the guts, asking out of the blue like that wouldn’t have met with success. There was no connection between us, no reason she should want to go with me. So I watched her from across the room, said hello. We were at least on terms where I could have minimal exchanges with her, acknowledge her presence.

This wasn’t to my own date’s detriment, I should say. I didn’t simply sit there, staring at Lana, pining. I’d cast a discreet glimpse her way once in a while, but otherwise, I tried to have fun. Laura, my date, had been nice enough to come with me, and I wanted her to have fun. I’ve always liked dancing. After getting over my initial self-consciousness, I let go, and enjoy myself. This started in private, in those sessions I’ve mentioned before, pretending to be Joe Elliott in my room, dancing to “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and continued through to homecoming dances, the only high school dances I attended before my senior prom precisely because one didn’t need a date and carried on into my West Philly days throwing parties. I’ll dance anywhere, anytime anyone wants to dance, from weddings to impromptu living room dance parties with my children. My wife and I solidified our relationship through a series of dance classes from Latin to Ballroom to Argentine Tango, and I danced the night of my senior prom. Most women, I had learned early, like to dance; though maybe it’s not most women generally so much as most of the women I’m drawn to. In any case, this was one of those things I’d noticed, and as I got older and learned to talk with them, it seemed to help that I liked dancing too. I understood that I wasn’t the world’s best dancer or the world’s worst, but that didn’t matter. Most of the time, I noticed, no one was paying attention to you because they were too concerned with what they looked like. Which ends up absolving everyone from looking silly or ridiculous. There’s never a spotlight on the floor, no one expects you to be Gene Kelly or Mikhail Baryshnikov or even John Travlota for that matter. You can hold your arms at your sides and sway to the rhythm. You don’t even have to be on rhythm to have a good time. You can just move. For me, that movement, even back then before I discovered alcohol and the freedom from inhibition that provides, was intoxicating.

We danced most of the night, my date and I, surrounded by school friends, people like Faith and Paul and Gabe. And when it was over, Lex brought us back to her house, and I walked her to her porch, and she gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek. I didn’t expect anything else. I had no dreams of prom night sexual escapades. I knew the score from the outset (though Lex, naturally, would call my date a few weeks later, after summer began and hook up with her; he had the good manners to ask if I’d mind beforehand this time, but I couldn’t have cared any less). Laura was a work friend, someone I liked. But I’d never thought of her as anything more. In the school cafeteria, the faculty had organized an after-party, and Lex took me there and went home.

“I’ll walk,” I told him. I wanted to walk home afterward. I needed to. It was all coming to an end, my high school experience, and I wanted the night to reflect on that. I stood at the door of the cafeteria and looked around. There was a table piled with food, and Lana was standing next to it. I decided to go up to her.

“Hey, how’s it going,” I said.

“Not bad.”

“Where’s your date?”

“He had to go.”

“Yeah, mine too. Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah, it was fun.”

These were the types of exchanges we’d been having all year. They were simple, perhaps inane. But being in proximity and speaking was at least a step in the right direction. And it made me happy to simply here her voice. I looked down. She had a few strawberries on her plate. There was deserts on the table, a cheese spread. I picked a few nervously. I watched as she turned and walked away. What was I expecting? A miracle of sorts, I suppose. The hope that she’d been pining too? She obviously hadn’t. And yet, as graduation approached, and we got our yearbooks, and Lana signed, my hopes were renewed.

“Jay, Hi! We’re done. No more Cheltenham! Next year, since we’re both sticking around, we should hang out. You, me, & Faith. We better keep in touch. Congratulations!”

Of course, I looked most closely at the line, “You, me, & Faith.” This tempered my enthusiasm somewhat. She’d thrown Faith in as a measure of distance. I’m not talking about hanging out with just you, this reminded me. There has to be a buffer. But I didn’t care. It meant the door was open for me to see her again. That even after school ended, she wouldn’t disappear from my life. But oh god, would I pine forever. Part of me just wanted to have done with it. I imagine that some of you reading along might feel the same, “Just have done with it already!” But I couldn’t help how I felt.

I was in a sentimental mood at the time. Whenever I walked home, I looked around me with a sense that something was coming to an end. I was looking forward to college. One of the many things I’d learned in high school was that I liked to study and learn. But it would be different, so I was also scared. Scared of losing the acquaintance of people who were familiar to me. Even if they weren’t friends, even if I didn’t know them, there was a comfort in seeing the same people day after day, year after year, and that comfort was about to be lost. A few days after graduation, Lex and I, along with Rick and Jim, had walked down to park around the corner from Lana. The three others had wanted to smoke from Rick’s new bong, while I had wanted to sit out and look at the sky and reminisce. Who knew, but maybe we’d see Lana. But when we arrived there were around fifty, maybe even a hundred, kids from our class there, drinking, smoking weed, talking. I was surprised. To some extent, I felt that I was the only one who knew this park, that I’d introduced it to my friends and it was ours.

It was smaller than Curtis Arboretum, which is where I would have expected our class to congregate. Not as visible. It wasn’t linked to any of the main roads. But still, I was happy to see them there. It seemed fitting, a bit like the end of Dazed and Confused with our class coming together to shoot the shit and get drunk or high. In the night, lighters flared and bottles clinked. A brief flash of flame lit the dark. Laughter rang out. Of course, it wasn’t our entire class. The full class would have been something over two hundred people, and I glanced around for Lana and didn’t see her there. But still, there were enough of us, and we made enough noise, for someone to call the cops. We heard sirens and saw the lights on two sides, but the squad cars hadn’t blocked off our usual exit, so we ran. Lex had been taking a hit when they showed up. He was only a few feet away from me, and we looked at each other and turned and dashed off. So did Drew and Rick. I think that Lain, the guy we’d invited to play woodblock with our band, a friend of Paul and Gabe’s was next to me. We sprinted through a copse of pine, up a gravel driveway at the back of the park, and found ourselves in the street on Bent Road. We stopped and turned about, out of breath. We couldn’t see the cops. I think they’d simply wanted to chase us out, scatter the crowd. I nodded to Lain and walked back toward Lex’s house. My friends were sitting out front, talking. It seems that Lex had stashed Rick’s bong in the bushes at the park before he ran.

“I didn’t want to break it,” Lex said.

“But now it’s gone,” Rick said.

“We’ll go back and get it tomorrow.”

I wasn’t there the next night when they returned, but Lana’s sister Rebecca and her friend Ali were in the field, hanging out. During our senior year, I slowly revealed how I felt for Lana to Lex. I was worried he’d tell me I was being ridiculous, that I didn’t know her, that I couldn’t feel that way when I hardly talked to her. But he didn’t. He respected the way I felt. I’m not sure if he understood, but he encouraged me. “Talk to her,” he’d say. “What’s the worst that could happen?” And maybe that’s why, over the course of senior year, I did. Maybe that’s why she noticed me. Maybe that’s why she’d written what she’d written in my yearbook. But I never said outright, “Let’s go out sometime.” I never asked her. And that night, the night that Lex and Jim and Rick had returned to Robinson Park to find the bong, Lex told her sister. I imagined the conversation went something like this:

“Yeah, he’s had it bad for her for the past three years.”

“Really, she has no idea!”

“We should get them together.”

“Why doesn’t he call her? You should have him call.”

Of course, I have no idea if this what how the exchange went. I have no idea what Rebecca said. It was all communicated the me the next day via Lex. Naturally, I was embarrassed. It had come off like I was sending an emissary in my place, someone else to do my dirty work. But Lex insisted. “No, she said you should call.” And secretly I was happy about it. Her number was in the back of my yearbook. I could call her. Her sister had even said I should. What did I have to lose? I waited another two days, as Lex suggested I should. “You don’t want to seem overeager,” he said. Which is advice more-experienced men have been giving less-experienced men for ages. I wandered about those two days in a contented haze, imagining the summer romance to come. Trips to the beach. Picnics maybe. Things of that sort. Sitting out together under the stars. Holding her hand, gazing up at the moon. Was she waiting for me to call? Had her sister told her, and she realized that all these years she liked me to? That was too much to expect. It wasn’t fair to her to have any expectations. I’d call and I’d ask if she’d like to get together and I’d try to temper my expectations. That was all.

I sat with the phone in my hand. There were echoes of an earlier time here. Calling Jennifer Mills. Hoping she’d pick up. Not knowing what I’d say. Only this time, my friend wasn’t there. I opened the yearbook and I dialed her number.

I think her mom answered. It wasn’t Rebecca or Lana. And when Lana came to the phone, she sounded surprised. But not in a good way, a happy way. The tone I read in her voice seemed to say, “Oh, this is unexpected. Out of the blue. It’s not that I dislike you, it’s just…why are you calling?” She didn’t say this, and maybe I was reading too much into her voice. But after she greeted me, we fell into silence. Maybe I’d expected Rebecca to do my work for me. Maybe I’d hoped she told her sister what Lex said and Lana was pleased and anticipating my call. Maybe, and I wouldn’t have put it past him, Lex hadn’t seen Rebecca at all. Maybe he’d concocted the story to get me off my ass to do something about how I felt. But he wasn’t that cruel, was he? You know, the guy who hooked up with two of the girls I’d liked and smacked me in the back of the head when he was out of sorts and came at me with a wooden baseball bat? I didn’t believe that this was the case.

I stuttered my way through an awkward two-minute conversation. She sounded bored, uninterested. I’d been overjoyed at the idea she might want me to call, and now my insides were compacting. Crunching together. Crushing my heart to bits. I might have been inexperienced, but I wasn’t tone deaf. She didn’t have any interest. I said goodbye without asking her out and hung up the phone. It was over. I had to accept that. There was still a song in it, though, and I wrote it for her. This time, I had no words. I mulled it over, kicked around some ideas, but decided to let it be instrumental. I recorded it, using a keyboard click track, and later, Lex added drums.

I even played it one afternoon for Lana’s sister and Ali at Curtis Arboretum, though I didn’t tell Rebecca I’d written it for her sister. I didn’t mention Lana when I saw them. I tried pretending the whole exchange had never happened, that she’d never run into Lex and suggested I call, that I never called and made a fool of myself. I tried putting it away, willing myself to not feel for her anymore, to snuff out three years’ worth of emotion. This song was largely my way of saying goodbye to her. I’d played around with my capo and decided to cover only four of the six strings, leaving E and A open. The sound is bright, as I wanted it to be. I felt that my affection for her, though never requited, had provided me something. That I wouldn’t have become the person I was without it.

It went beyond songwriting. My first novel, which I’d begun writing that summer, the summer before my freshman year at Temple, was about a man whose lover disappears without warning. He spends most of the first two chapters, which was as far as I got before turning to other projects, haunted by memory. He encounters her presence in a dream-like sequence at the same park I always went to, the one around the corner from Lana’s. This was obviously inspired by Lana’s disappearance during junior year, but I’d fictionalized my account to make it so the couple had been together. They were also older, I suppose because I thought making them older would lend more weight to the drama, make it seem more serious. Of course, jumping from writing songs with two or three verses, a chorus and a bridge to writing a novel is a dramatic leap, and I didn’t pull it off. I didn’t know what to do with it. Beyond the girl’s disappearance, I didn’t have a plot. I’d modeled the book on Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther. It was entirely derivative, but I needed something to occupy me creatively.

Lex and I continued to write and record songs, but we weren’t playing live. It was becoming increasingly difficult for us to find musicians to play with. Pete’s band was going well, and Gabe was going to college and wouldn’t be available. So we were relegated to a two piece. As I entered my first year at Temple, Lex too was drifting away from music toward painting. Both writing and painting were pursuits we didn’t need each other for, let alone anyone else, but we still dreamed of music. It was as hard to let go of as Lana.

I wrote stories and poems, and though none of the stories or poems I wrote at this time were great, I was learning I had the ability to write beyond song structure. In my Freshman Comp class, our first assignment was to write a three-page story. It could be about anything, and I wrote about an obscured figure who might have been a president, might have been God. The figures memory was growing hazy and he might not have known himself. Little by little, he was shutting down his office, closing the windows, drawing the shades. It’s not unusual for a beginning writer to go the heavily symbolic route. I got a B on it for this exact reason (though grading a story is hardly an objective process) and was a bit disappointed (as with many beginners, I had thought the story was genius). Yet, I had a great time writing it. I commuted to Temple and lived at home, and our family’s computer was in the basement. And I sat there and wrote and lost track of time. The words had just flowed from me. The nice thing about starting out as a writer is being unaware of rules. I made some of the cardinal mistakes but didn’t care. I was lacking self-consciousness. Mimicking the writing I liked, though doing it badly. I started to dash off story after story. I’d stay up late, working. The silence of the basement, the hum of our computer. The simple text on the screen, the dot matrix printer. Whenever I finished a story or poem, I would print it out and rush to show it to Rick’s mom or Lex’s dad. I didn’t know any other writers. But Rick’s mom was a reader and Lex’s dad was an artist. Lex’s dad didn’t hold back his opinion. I’d seen as much with the first version of “Song X,” the version Lex had recorded on his own, the way they’d wrestled in the living room after his dad had made a negative comment. I had my own brush with it now. I’d finished a fourteen-page Whitmanesque poem. I had thought it would be groundbreaking, revolutionary, earth-shattering.

What he said was, “I see a lot of people your age, who convey these sentiments.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have a way with words,” he said. “And the words here are evocative, but they’re unoriginal.”

We were sitting in the kitchen at Lex’s house. I wanted to jump across the table and wrestle him to the ground like Lex did. Instead I sat there and nodded and took the pages and left. It was my first critique, and it hurt. I wasn’t yet hearing what I should have heard, what should have given me encouragement. He had said I was good. He had said they showed promise. But all I’d heard was one word: “unoriginal.” Like so many aspiring artists, I wanted to arrive fully-formed. Already fading were the countless hours I’d put in to learning to play guitar, the years it took for us to learn to write a passable song. I wanted to be a writer right away, with as little effort possible. I didn’t pause to reflect and recognize that I didn’t have much life experience, which doesn’t matter in songwriting, but makes a difference in prose. I had my childhood, of course, but I didn’t have enough distance to write about it. I’d kissed a girl, but never had a serious girlfriend. I’d traveled only up and down New England, but not much farther than that. Over the summer, before I went to college, Jim and Lex and I had driven to Maine to see Phish perform at a concert they called Lemon Wheel. I didn’t like Phish. Jam bands weren’t really my thing. And Lex and Jim didn’t like them either. But we went as something to do. I wanted to see Maine. I’d heard it was beautiful, and I liked camping. Some of Jim’s friends for another circle he ran with were going, and we decided it would be a fun road trip. We spent the weekend at our campsite and only went to see the band play for a half hour or so. I lay in my tent, reading while Lex and Jim tripped. We ended up spending all our money and on the trip back, had to search the mud mats on Jim’s Bronco’s floor for enough change to pay the final toll at Fort Washington to get home. And while this was fun and memorable, it didn’t make for good drama. Lex and Jim arguing over who should pay for gas, that type of thing. For the reason, I didn’t turn to my own life for subject matter but to other books. And this made me unoriginal.

I didn’t stew long before I got back to my computer. I wrote a string of stories about Glenside, Cheltenham. I took characters from real life and hid them behind different names, and I liked writing them but didn’t think most of the stories were any good. It was a frustrating transition between the simple joy of writing without self-consciousness and learning to critique my own work, to look as it with a critical eye. To look at my writing and realize that something I’d written wasn’t any good was harder than it ever was with music. Whenever Lex had criticized me about a song, I turned around and wrote something better. I was confident in my ability to write songs. With stories I was on shaky ground. I tried writing line by line. Just create one good line. Place another good line after. But this was, it took forever. And I was young and inpatient. I hadn’t yet arrived at the technique I’ve using here, while drafting this memoir live, of just getting text down on the page and worrying about crafting it later, during the editing process. In short, I was willing to work hard on a first draft, but I wanted to be done with a story then. I didn’t want to have to go back, rearrange, cut. I’d never had to do that with songwriting, but songwriting had felt more intuitive.

Over the next few years, I’d experiment with traditional realism, stream-of-consciousness, self-reflexive post-modernism, autobiography, imagism, sonnets, and magical realism, but this night, this one night in particular, my chosen genre was the letter. I sat in my parents’ living room with a few sheets of crisp white paper on my lap and a blue pen in my hand and wrote. I didn’t see her every day anymore, and that helped. But I had so many regrets, regret for not acting, for not saying something sooner, for not trying to get to know her better. And as I fell asleep night after night, these regrets kicked around in my mind. I had to let go of them. And I figured this letter was my chance. I would tell her everything. I’d start at the beginning. Like clearing my head of song by singing every lyric, I’d tell her the story. And maybe she’d read it, maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t even send it. I didn’t know, but I started with that day at the train station, that day after the rain storm, the day I’d seen her walked home as I was leaving Lex’s, and went from there. I’d hoped to set the tone at the outset that I wasn’t asking for anything, not even a reply. I’d simply wanted to tell her how much she meant to me. I filled five or six pages, and when I was done, I folded them and placed them in an envelope. I scribbled her address, which I’d found in the Cheltenham student directory and walked around for the next few days with the letter in my bag.

Should I send it? Wasn’t it enough that I put it down on paper? Did I need her to read it? Was that fair to her? Was this really about her? There was a mailbox on the corner of Keswick and Glenside, and every time I passed it, I considered mailing it. And one day, I dropped it in, impulsively. After all, the back and forth, I took it in a surge and dropped it in and it was done with. I don’t know if she ever received it. What she thought of it. For a while, I shuddered with embarrassment whenever I thought of it. I told one of my coworkers at the nursing home who I was friendly with what I’d done.

“Dude, you’re my fucking hero,” he said. “I’d never in a million year have the balls to do something like that.”

I shrugged, “Yeah.”

This was the way I always took compliments of this sort.

It was similar to the way I’d taken the bravery compliments after my fight with Lex. The way the guys there had praised me for charging a wooden bat when I didn’t know that I was charging a wooden bat, when I had really had no clue what I was doing, when there were myriad motives. I had convinced myself I was doing this to get over her, but was it the truth. Didn’t I want her to write back, just a little? Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. But being in college, it felt like I had to leave behind the things of this other life. And I was trying to do that the best that I could. Trying to get away from my younger self. Trying to grow up, move on.

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