So I believe I may have mentioned before that I grew up in two different small towns. The town where I went to high school had a population of approximately 5000 people while I was living there, and when we moved there in 1989 I was going into the sixth grade. Most of my classmates, approximately 100 of them, had been going to school together since kindergarten, or in some cases, preschool. Anybody moving into town was considered Fresh Meat as far as the kids were concerned, it being the sort of town where everybody knew everybody, and everybody’s families were intermingled and such.
While my family wasn’t related to anyone else in town, and while I occasionally had crushes on various boys in my class, I was never truly interested in dating anyone I went to school with. The idea of it felt a little incestuous, especially since in most cases I remembered them before they’d grown a foot, before they’d started having to shave, before their voices changed from soprano to baritone. Various people dated various other people, and then they broke up and started dating other various people, but because it was the same small pool, rumors got around about who was better at what sex acts, who had a kinky side, who might be mentally ill. I wanted no part of it, had no interest in being the subject of a “drunk at the river” Monday morning story. So I didn’t date anybody I went to high school with.* The closest I did, in fact, was to date someone from two towns to the south, and that was only briefly (we worked better as friends). Once, for a few months, I dated a guy who lived in my town, but he attended school elsewhere and had just moved to town (we met at swim team over the summer). Although to be fair, I don’t know if you could call what we did dating, per se, since he seemed to be horribly afraid of doing anything other than holding my hand and quoting nerdy movie lyrics at me.
I believe I’ve also mentioned before that I went to church camp every summer from 1991 to 1995. One of the major appeals of attending the week-long event was the opportunity to meet boys who did NOT live in my town, boys I hadn’t spent our formative summers watching them attempt to hide proto-boners in the local pool. Camp was my chance to get to know boys from other places, who of course would be far more mature and more interesting than the ones in my hometown. And meet them I did, each summer, and each week-long camp experience (with a three-day weekend mid February mini camp) brought new crushes to my tender, naive heart. Anyhow, schmaltz aside, one summer I met a boy named Chris and developed a big crush on him, but I was already sort-of-dating the one back home in the ‘dale with the lovely swimmer’s shoulders. So I quashed my feelings until February, when I dropped the Rush freak like a hot potato and started dating Chris in earnest.
The trouble was that Chris lived in Fremont. And I lived in Cloverdale. This was a distance of approximately 120 miles, which is significant when you are an adult, but for a teenager who isn’t yet old enough to drive, it might as well be a light year. The only reason we were even able to maintain a relationship for as long as we did (an entire year!) was due to public transportation.
I was already a seasoned user of public transportation by the time Chris and I got together. Not infrequently, I would take the bus from Cloverdale to Santa Rosa, where one could shop in a mall, or see a movie in a theater that played more than one movie at a time. After we decided to try a long distance relationship, I found out that there was a bus that would take me from Santa Rosa to San Francisco, and then I could take BART from San Francisco to Fremont. Usually, when I made the trip, Chris would meet me at the BART station in the city, and when he came north, I’d meet him in Santa Rosa and we’d ride the bus back to the ‘dale together. (Or I’d sweet-talk my mom into driving me there to pick him up.) I think we saw one another around once a month, on average, with the 5+ hour trip each way meaning a weekend together was really more like one day. I saved my babysitting money for bus fare, and he had somehow acquired some youth BART tickets (for kids under 12, maybe, back when BART had a different fare structure), but nobody ever checked the color of the stripe on your ticket when going through the turnstile and so the BART portion of the trip was usually free.
(And I’m not entirely sure why I even dated him for a year, to be honest. Most of our relationship was conducted through letters and phone calls, and back in the dark ages before unlimited minutes and cell phones, phone calls were actually kind of expensive. Plus, it turned out I wasn’t really all that attracted to him, physically, and then there was the added factor that he was not the sharpest tool in the shed. Hey, don’t make me explain it. I was fifteen.)
One time, when I was sitting at the bus station in Santa Rosa waiting for the bus that would take me down to the city, I was reading my book when suddenly a strange man plopped down beside me on the bench. The first thing I noticed about the man was that he smelled like mange. Have you ever smelled a mangy dog? It…isn’t a very pleasant smell. The second thing I noticed was that he was wearing a tattered black leather jacket. He appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s (though to be fair, when I was 15 it was difficult for me to judge the age of anybody over about 21; past that they were just kinda old), with scraggly red hair and a scraggly red goatee. He had at least half of his teeth. He had black half moons at the tips of his fingers, and a few tattoos on his hands, and he was carrying a vacuum cleaner box and a laser disc.
“Hi!” he greeted me, enthusiastically.
“Hi,” I responded as succinctly as I could, and pointedly went back to reading my book. Of course, I considered myself to be totally jaded and worldly by this point, because I’d successfully made the trip down to San Francisco a couple of times and was not unused to weird people trying to talk to me.
Sadly, my attempt at brevity and my nose in my book didn’t stop him. He spent the entire time we were waiting for the bus telling me the long story about why he was carrying a vacuum cleaner in a box. Obviously, I couldn’t care less about this, but I managed a few polite “uh huh”s and “mm hmm”s. When the bus arrived, I paid my fare and sat in a seat about halfway back, ready to enjoy some mange-free air for the first time in half an hour. Of course, as soon as I’d settled in, who should sit beside me but Mangy Toothless Vacuum Man. He proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes or so describing to me the mysterious inner workings of the laser disc machine. After a while, I couldn’t ignore him anymore, so I managed to get in a question here or there. “It’s the wave of the future!” he exclaimed, punctuating his sentence by waving the laser disc around. “A year from now, nobody will be using VHS. It’ll be nothing but laser discs in the video stores!”
“Uh huh,” I said.
The laser disc he was using to gesticulate was a copy of The Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie I hadn’t seen. When I mentioned this to him, of course, he spent the remainder of the bus ride telling me the plot and everything else there was to know about the movie. (Fortunately, I forgot it completely, because many years later I managed to finally see it in a midnight showing and loved it.)
Finally, Mangy Toothless Vacuum Man got off the bus at one of the side-of-the-highway stops someplace in Marin county. A short Mexican man in restaurant scrubs got on the bus and sat in the vacated seat. I spent the rest of the ride into San Francisco in sweet, sweet silence, and resumed breathing through my nose for the first time in nearly two hours.
*The irony here, of course, is that I spent three years of college in a relationship with someone I’d gone to high school with, and we got together pretty much as soon as we got to Berkeley.