There are some stories you don’t tell. Ever. Not to anyone. There are some stories you tell all the time, over and over, with such panache and aplomb that you know exactly the moment when the audience will gasp or nod or cover its mouth in the impossible attempt to stifle the inappropriate laugh.
And there are some stories you tell, but only rarely. Only when the time is right. When that part of your heart where the most precious things are locked away whispers, “Now.” This is one of those stories.
I was back at Wesleyan last weekend for my 40th reunion. About 30 of my classmates joined me. We took a lot of photos, gave and received a lot of hugs and wore a lot of purple. We talked about the people who weren’t there and gave them heck in absentia. We did a lot of remembering.
It was from that remembering — that neurological pump primed by the smiles and laughs that look and sound absolutely no different from the ones I last saw and heard in 1978 — that the story rose to the surface like the witches we used to say rose from Foster Lake on Halloween to free the students from class.
It is the story of a bright, but naive 17-year-old who visited Wesleyan for a scholarship weekend and went home and told her parents, “I’m going there.” The one who didn’t apply to any other college, so sure was she that somehow, some way, Wesleyan would be where she would end up. It’s the story of the girl who was so excited to have seen that optimism rewarded that she wandered around the first week introducing herself to so many people that someone mistook her for a faculty member.
And it’s the story of the girl who, having endured — and at the same time, somehow, enjoyed — the juvenile initiation rites inflicted upon her and her classmates by the upperclassmen, found a spot on the grass, far away from the drone of conversation in the dorm, to sit under the honey drip of the setting sun and marvel at her incredible good fortune.
Most of my friends from high school were, at that exact moment, living the very different experience of sorority rush. I didn’t know much about the string of invitations and parties beyond the fact that it involved the process of, ultimately, being chosen. Sitting there with my knees pulled up to my chest, looking out over the campus as the street lamps began to come on, I was struck forcefully by what was probably the first truly adult thought I’d ever had, the thought that what I had just been through — the ridiculous outfit, included — was quite the opposite of being chosen and was, in fact, the culmination of my choosing.
Choosing and being chosen, it was clear, are very different things. And for this bright, but naive — and did I mention insecure? — 17-year-old, it was more than different. It was critical. I would never have had the self-confidence, the assurance, the courage to say, “Pick me.” I would never have believed that anyone would.
But I did have the self-confidence and assurance and courage to trust my choice. I did know, from the moment I dragged my trunk into the dorm room that I would share with Kim from Titusville, Florida, that I had found my home. And I have trusted it every moment since.
On Saturday night, a couple of hundred yards and nearly 44 years away from that spot of grass, on a patio lit only by paper bag luminaries, we sat — my Wesleyan sisters and I. We talked about the people we loved and the ones we still do. We filled in the gaps in each others’ stories, moving around the patio from one cluster to another, a waltz without accompaniment. We listened and nodded and gave each other permission to be those girls again, the ones who chose.
It was chilly for late April. At one point, a few drops of rain fell on our heads like a christening. And, too soon, it was time to go.
Of all the decisions I have ever made, the one that took me there, that keeps me there even now is the only one that I have never second guessed. Perhaps I was not as naive, as insecure as I thought. Or perhaps I was simply, even then, listening to my heart say, “Now.”