The author at 13 (right), December 1988.

That year Cindy McPherson, exhilaratingly confident, was entering seventh grade. A spray of little-girl freckles covered her nose, but she was pivoting into her teens, two years older than me. How many deep conversations did we have at camp that summer? One. But we had enough superficial chats—over lanyards, by the lake—that they amassed a kind of meaning.

My reserve and redheadedness had branded me a Nice Guy in the dismal summer-camp taxonomy—the kiss of death (or rather, of no kisses at all). But maybe, I reasoned, I could offer Cindy a welcome break from the cooler guys she hung out with. I still think this was my appeal—like a glass of milk after a night of Manhattans.

After camp I returned to nerdy Virginia, and Cindy went back to her hipper mid-Atlantic state. I sent her letters. She sent me one, suggesting we set up a phone call.

I had phoned my parents, my grandmother, and the baseball card shop. I had never phoned a girl.

On the big night, I pushed my dinner around my plate, then vibrated down to the den and dialed. Cindy’s mom answered. I sailed through a brief internal “Is Cindy there?” versus

“May I speak with Cindy?” debate (went with the former), and soon Cindy and I were live.


“What’s up?”

“Uh, hang on, call waiting,” she said.

She clicked over. I took the opportunity to get more comfortable on the couch. I looked at its pattern, pale yellow dots on dark green. We’d been talking for a few seconds, but already something had changed in me. I was chatting with a girl. My parents were nowhere in sight. Soon I’d be in junior high. The Reagan days were on the wane, and then there’d be another guy, and junior high would become high school, and the planet was circling the sun, and I was up and running, part of the whole grand operation.

I noticed on the VCR that three minutes had passed. If Cindy, a take-care-of-business girl, had to deal with a call, she’d do so. I liked that.

The thing about noticing the clock, though, is that once you start, you can’t stop. Three more minutes passed. Was there a crisis? I tried to stay cool. After 15 minutes, a person might give thought to hanging up; I did, and my thought was, Of course I won’t hang up. How would Cindy feel if I wasn’t there when she came back?

Did my parents or, worse, my little brother look in with concern? I’m happy not to remember. Whatever happened, it happened for 40 minutes. Then I placed the receiver in its cradle and went to bed without saying good night. Cindy and I never spoke again.

I passed through the standard grief cycle: confusion, shame, growing up, falling in love, trying to get my kids to eat tomatoes. It gets better—but in the getting better is a sliver of regret. One minute the sweaty phone is against your ear; the next you’re a grown-up, stable and fat. You don’t miss calls like that, but maybe you miss how they shook you?

The other day, I looked Cindy up. Her name—her real name, which isn’t Cindy—is distinct, but two Cindyesque women on Facebook had it. The first seemed kind; in her photo she sipped tea. The second was bounding over a mud pit. She looked like someone who’d tell you, impatiently, about her CrossFit regimen.

Had Cindy’s brashness soured into joyless athleticism? Or mellowed into the warmth of a tea sipper? As I went to close Facebook, I caught the gaze of a third person on the screen: me. The scared kid we all once were still lives on within us, and in my profile photo, that’s who I saw. I wanted to talk to him: Hang up. Things work out either way, but just hang up.

In our sweet, brief youth, we don’t know how fellow humans work, and we can cling to the promise of what we want them to be. But how old we get, how curdled and knowing. I think of Cindy and I’m glad, grateful that I was such a dope, once so bright and alive with beautiful dumbness.

Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Relationships Newsletter!


Next Story