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Have you ever had that moment when something you thought was kind of unique and special actually turned out to not be so special after all -- and you were kind of an idiot for thinking that it was special in the first place?
That happened to me when I was 19 years old and doing what is called the "Teaching Newspaper" internship at Northwestern for journalism majors who are required for an entire quarter to work at a real-life newspaper and get the skills to eventually barely pay the bills. I was good enough to get placed at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, but not good enough to land the Miami Herald, the really cherry of the program. But now that the Herald is a shell of what it once was as a newspaper, who's laughing now, amirite?
At the time, I drove cross-country from my hometown in San Diego with my brand-new leased green Saturn with no license plates (and proceeded to get two speeding tickets in one day -- hi, Texas and Missouri!), with a pit-stop in Chicago where I dropped acid and scribbled in "On the Road," and then finally landing in Florida. There I lived with a woman who welcomed me to her extra room, and when she gained my confidence enough, told me in hushed tones how she landed her boyfriend using the book "The Rules." I slept on a leaky waterbed and sicced her cat on the cockroaches.
I also had an office romance. With a 34-year-old longhaired Brit I will call "Jay" who -- I found out later -- attempted to have an office romance with pretty much all the interns. Oh. Nice gig if you can get it.
It was the end of 1995, the quarter when Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl in a ridiculous unprecedented season, a boy went missing down in Florida and was found chopped up in little pieces in cement later on -- and the O.J. Simpson verdict came down as not guilty. A weird pall hung over the whole experience -- boy missing when I arrived (his name was Jimmy Ryce, a historic case); boy found dead and dismembered when I left, the headline: "He's Gone to Heaven Now." I remember weeping at that headline and saving the paper. It's long gone now.
My mom came down to visit me (listing her affiliation on the sign-up sheet at the newspaper as "haha!" -- which without fail always makes me laugh to think of) and then at home we got online together for the first time, where I used the very early Geocities program. To this day, my mom wonders aloud whatever happened to the user known as "Mr. Basketball."
The newsroom was also using email very primitively, but the real excitement was in the trusty internal messaging system on the computers to communicate reporter to reporter. And Jay began to message me funny and flirtatious little notes throughout the day. Attention. I liked that. I also thought it was a fluke. I had trouble imagining myself the object of desirability. I didn't rock the poor-man's sorority look that I wear so proudly today (eyebrows, dyed hair, makeup-makeup). But I'm sure to 34-year-old, expense-account-laden Jay, the 19-year-girl with the glasses who was nervous and fumbly was quite the draw. That and the fact that he hit on all the fucking interns. But yeah. I didn't know it at the time.
I forget how we ended up going out the first time. I remember he told me to call him. (Warning sign right there: Beware the man who makes you ask him out.) And I think that I did call him, and he didn't answer, and then he called me back, and then I missed it, and then he chided me because I needed to account for the fact that he could have been doing laundry or something. But we did end up going out.
He was able to expense the drinks he bought for me illegally on the newspaper's account, and I thought it was all very impressive and exciting. We were sticking it to the man, and sometimes he touched my hand. He made fun of me for not having a license plate on my Saturn. I liked that. He made fun of other people at the newspaper who were not as bright as him. I liked that, too.
And then the holidays came around. He told me that while he was an atheist, he liked to do the whole holiday season blowout celebration, seeing the Rockettes in New York, decorating his tree to the hilt and celebrating the spectacle of it all. And when Thanksgiving came around, I was floored that after our few bizarre (sometimes making out on the hood of my Saturn) dates he invited me to celebrate with him and his father. I talked to my family. They were apprehensive. But I was going to do it. I had to. This was like my first workplace romance, and clearly it was quite serious if I was being invited there for turkey and drinks.
Lots of drinks. I was given fair warning ahead of time.
"I'll warn you that in years past we all ended up putting cereal boxes on our head," he said in his slight English accent. His hair flipped out near his shoulders and he wore a grownup outfit with pleats. God. So impressive.
I couldn't wait. I wanted to put a cereal box on my head, too.
When I went over to Jay's dad's lavish Ft. Lauderdale condo, his father, an elderly Austin Powers type on his third or so wife, who was 30-some years younger, greeted me at the door with a high-ball and wearing near-neon plaid pants. He talked at me for a few hours about being a pilot or a hero or something amazing where he did amazing things. I listened and nodded. His wife was blonde, and they all made fun of her. I guess this was a theme emerging. Then Jay's father asked me what I was studying.
"Journalism," I said.
"Ah, journalism," he said. "What was the last book you read?"
Now, I have always sucked at this question. It cost me admission into Pomona College when the interviewer asked me, and I said, "Right now I'm just reading a lot of magazines and newspapers." Hint: That's not the right answer.
It's not that I don't read, it's just that for some reason I panic at the question. I'm not sure what the right answer is. Is it the books I've read for class? The insane Joyce Carol Oates novels that read like a dark melodramatic horrorscape that I adored? And so with old man Austin Powers, I squeaked out, "A Tale of Two Cities."
"Very good," he said. "What is your favorite passage from the book?"
"What?" I said.
"Can you recite some of 'A Tale of Two Cities' for me?" he asked. "Here, I'll start. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'"
"I -- I wasn't prepared for that," I stammered, beginning to sweat through the Clothestime vinyl outfit I was wearing.
They all laughed. Blondes.
The night got drunker. There was food. I ate the food. I also took a cue from the other blonde there and didn't eat too much.
"More potatoes? Oh, no, thank you, I'm okay. This is perfect. Can I have some more champagne, though?"
Sadly, at no point did the cereal boxes land on anyone's heads, but, hey, that's probably a once-in-a-Thanksgiving kind of occurrence anyway. And it was definitely one of those nights where it was easy to see how that would be the ultimate conclusion. When I could barely stand any longer, Jay's father kissed me on both cheeks goodbye, recounted another grand story of being a war hero or a pilot or something.
"Don't forget to brush up on your 'Tale of Two Cities,'" he said.
"Right," I said. "Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you very much."
Then Jay drove me home and kissed me goodbye outside my apartment on my Saturn hood. We kissed for a long time, and it got increasingly heated. I thought of the book "The Rules" my roommate had given me. I thought of my leaking waterbed. I thought of Mr. Basketball.
"I'm not going to sleep with you," he said, as if reading my mind.
"What?" I asked.
"You're seeking love, and you want to get it through sex, so I'm not going to give it to you," he said.
"Oh," I said. "Okay. Happy Thanksgiving."
"Happy Thanksgiving, Mandy."
Jay asked me on a few more dates; at the Christmas party at his house, he did not acknowledge that we were "dating" or whatever you would call was happening there -- intern expense accounting? -- and I remember feeling devastated as I watched the boats pass by in the water with Christmas lights, per Florida holiday tradition. I was sitting on a bridge next to other reporters from the paper. Then Jay plunked down next to me, his thigh wedged firmly next to mine. He held my hand for a moment. 10 seconds, 20 seconds -- a minute. And then he stood up and left. Secret.
One of the final times he took me out on the town, he pointed out our waitress's giant engagement ring, something I didn't even notice as I never noticed things like that, and he pointed out how attractive she was since she had such a giant engagement ring.
When I interned at the Washington Post a year later, and I was more stressed out than I had ever been, I called Jay and said I was thinking of getting out of journalism because I wasn't having such a good time. I was just pretty much stressed out all the time, and also, everyone in D.C. just wanted to know what you did for a living. I didn't think it was my scene.
He was curt. "Well, I've always said that it's better for journalism if the people who aren't fully committed to it get out of the profession," he said.
Jay was a copy editor.
Back at Northwestern, I commiserated with another blonde who had also gone down to the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and interned there.
"Oh, God, did that creepy guy Jay hit on you?" she laughed, recoiling at the idea of anyone dating him.
"Yeah," I said, my stomach turning. "I know, right."
She laughed knowingly and rolled her eyes.
So -- xoJaners -- what is your weirdest Thanksgiving experience? Cereal boxes on the head, anyone? Did you date Jay, too?
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.