I was given two great gifts in the summer of 1987. One was the opportunity to see the Drum Corps International finals in Wisconsin with my future classmates. I got the second gift the same week we piled in a van and rode many miles north. I received it from an attractive, soon to be senior named Pam.
Before we left, I looked forward to the trip, partially because I was (fine, am) a huge band geek and couldn’t believe I’d get to see the amazing talent on display at the DCI finals. Mostly though, I looked forward because I was one of only two incoming freshmen allowed to go, so it was a Big Deal.
I wanted to fit in with all the older kids going, but I just didn’t. They had all been together at least a year and I couldn’t compete with the camaraderie. I tried not to talk too much and to blend in as well as I could, but I’m sure they mostly saw me as the anxious, slightly scared little kid I was.
That changed at one of the fast food places we stopped at on the way. Several of us waited in a long line to order. Pam was in front of me. I just met her, but I figured out a lot. She easily talked with everyone, but seemed slightly distant. She had an affect. When she laughed, everyone laughed. Just about everyone in the group, including the adults, talked about her with a tone of near reverence. I looked as longingly at her as everyone else, but had the sense to know she was way out of my league. That’s probably why I stammered a bit when she turned around, cocked her head back, and regarded me through heavily lidded eyes.
“Hey,” she said, “Want to do me a favor?”
I swallowed hard and said, “Uh, yeah, sure, what?” That’s me, the babbling idiot.
“Would you hold this for me?”
She held out her baggy denim purse. I took it without a word.
“Thanks,” she said and turned back around.
I grasped both straps and slung the purse over my shoulder like a sack. Several of the guys laughed. I was stuck though, and just tried to make myself smaller. They stopped laughing when Pam threw her arm around my should, leaned in close and quietly said, “Don’t worry, they’re just jealous.” My pulse quickened as the others looked at me with a mixture of respect and pity.
I held her purse the rest of the week. Anytime she got tired of it, she handed it to me and I took it. It’s wasn’t as one-sided as it sounds. We were often together. If we were all in a room watching a movie, she came and sat by me, once even almost snuggling up beside me.
The cynical side of me thinks she just didn’t want to carry her purse. The romantic, optimistic side of me though? It thinks something else. I later learned she had a bit of a reputation and maybe she just craved the simple, sweet, innocent affection of a younger guy who never even considered wanting more than to just be near her and laugh with her.
My cynical side’s best argument is that that one week was it for whatever it was we had. She spoke to me at school in the fall, but it wasn’t the same, and I was left with the realization that I was probably a glorified shelf. She may have thought I was cute, even enjoyed my company, but I’d never be more than a guy who carried her purse. I didn’t pine away for her or anything, I chalked it up to one lesson learned.
Many years later I met another attractive blond in college. It was a meeting arranged by mutual friends who thought we’d hit it off. We seemed to. I dropped by the restaurant where she was the assistant manager and we’d sit outside and talk on her breaks. I finally officially asked her out and we set plans for a date. A date we didn’t keep.
In a Lifetime movie moment she was in a serious car wreck. I hadn’t known her long, but I waited at the hospital all night. I didn’t leave until early morning, after several surgeries, and when I was assured she’d be all right.
I visited everyday. I did my best to make her laugh, to lift her spirits. When she got discharged, her mother rented a hotel room for them because she was in the process of moving when the wreck happened. The room was on the second floor, but she couldn’t walk yet. I carried her up the stairs and lay her on the bed.
A few days later, after her mother left, she stayed at a friend’s house. She didn’t want to be alone and and often asked me to come keep her company. I spent most of the time I had between classes and work by her bedside watching Days of Our Lives, playing cards, and growing closer.
I helped her move into a new house she rented with two other friends and we finally had our date. It wasn’t a perfect date, but it was quite a nice time. As she healed, she grew more distant. One night, months after the accident, I finally went for a kiss.
“Leighton, don’t,” she said.
“Sorry,” I stammered, “I just thought -”
“I know, it’s just . . . I don;t know what I want from you. I really love you as a friend, but I’m not sure I want more.”
Over the next few weeks space grew between us. She began treating her roommates in a way that surprised and bothered me. When I pointed out how she hurt their feelings, she told me, “You know what? You really just don’t do it for me. I’m not even sure I want you as a friend.” I wondered if she changed, or this was how she always acted and I just started noticing.
After the disillusionment set in, she called me one night.
“Well, I’m moving back to Cleveland,” she informed.
“Oh, wow. Wow. You’re really moving away?”
“Yeah, it’s best for me.”
“You said you never wanted to go back.”
“I changed my mind.”
Like you changed your mind about me? I thought. “Oh,” I said.
“You could come with me . . .”
“Come with you?”
“To come with me.”
“I thought you didn’t know what you want from me.”
“I want you to come to Ohio with me.”
“What would I do in Cleveland?”
“I don;t know, but you’d be there for me.”
There was a long pause. Then, “Because I don’t know what I’d do without you there.”
I thought about carrying her up the steps, I thought about sitting by her bedside while she slept because she didn’t want to be alone. I thought about her telling me she wasn’t attracted to me, that she wasn’t even sure we could be friends. In that moment, I realized I made her feel safe. I also realized she’d no longer need me once she settled in and got comfortable.
“No,” I told her.
“You don’t want to come with me?”
“Actually I do, but I’m not going to.”
“What will I be? Your footstool? I don’t think so.”
“You have to come with me!”
It broke my heart as I said it, “No, I don’t”
I was done carrying purses. Lesson learned indeed.