Well, I was born an original sinner
I was born from original sin
And if I had a dollar bill for everything I've done
There'd be a mountain of money piled up to my chin. Hey!
It is 1982. I am running from the college library, tears scorching my cheeks as I run, racked with blood shame and the burnt edges of unrequited love. My long black hair feels singed as it whips around my red face. It is raining and it is twilight, I remember that. And this man has said something terrible to me. He has said, in essence, No. And possibly, Go away.
I don't quite remember what he said; mercy and recreational drug use have canceled it out. Yet I believe he did it all with one look, one unilateral expression of distaste and rejection and pity.
It is two days before college graduation, and the man I adore has rejected me...in a public library, where I imagine on-campus friends and colleagues can see and gloat and point and laugh with derision and satisfaction: The good-looking people who think they are poets have been taken down once again!
(Perception rules here; it is not real, some of it is falsehood. It was a time of such lovely falsehoods; we were English majors, Tom and I, and everyone else was sensibly getting their MBAs. We believed we were special, more literary and maybe even important voices of our generation. We were just kids. Kids with credit cards and small apartments who listened to the Pretenders and made out over cups of beer from kegs. That is what we were. The fact that we were taught by some of the finest minds and poets -- Gary Snyder, Thom Gunn, and Philip Levine -- only encouraged us, I am afraid. But we knew enough to try, and we knew enough to know we were lucky, and we knew enough to fall in love where love was not indicated, just for the thrill of it. If it sounds like a diet soda pitch, so be it. It was the '80s, Ronald Reagan was president: A lot of trifling occurred while the rich got filthy and tuition to Berkeley doubled and tripled, each semester. Much folly was made over a great deal of nothing.)
I am 22, an amateur poet and a buxom graduating English major at Berkeley, and at this untimely intersection I endure a potent combination of gristly self-pity and windbag notions of high romance.
The man I wrote poetry for over a period of four years (some poems were published in slim, forgettable volumes) has rejected me, and his Real Girlfriend is coming to his graduation. Her name is Leslie. Leslie! The name of both a man and a woman. I feel badly beaten by both sexes. I run on. Leslie. This is the new information, so yes; he must have spoken at Moffat Library. But it was the expression on his face I remember most. Pity: the exact opposite of Passion, its viral antidote. If Passion is a kitchen grease fire, pity is the baking soda you pour onto it. Here I am covered in baking soda and mortification, in 1982. I am thinking I will cease to exist forthwith.
I dash back to my apartment and I decide to skip the graduation ceremony at my college. Because He will be there. I make it all very clean that way, very tragic, and I have the last word into the bargain. At the graduation ceremony, they call my name. He hears it. I am not there.
Score one for the Coward's Way. And fast-forward 24 years.
This man was Tom Cramer. He was always religiously minded, and he went on to become a Presbyterian pastor and have two children and a beautiful wife. Of course he did. This is not the unusual part.
If you'd told me I'd be interviewing Tom Cramer, my super-quasar unconsummated love affair in college, and that the process would be splendid and perfect and life changing, I would say not a chance in Hell.
So naturally it was all arranged.
It was your basic garden-variety miracle. My angle on the story is simple: How Tom Cramer went out into the world to do right, and I went out into the world to do wrong. Our intentions were clear and focused as they can only be at 22. I went on to become a writer, he became a pastor. We both married and bore children. Just as we'd planned. How banal.
"Peculiar travel suggestions," Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "are dancing lessons from God."
My mama taught me good
My mama taught me strong
She said be true to yourself and you can't go wrong
But there's just one thing that you should understand:
You can fool with your brother, but don't mess with the Missionary Man.
I begin the assignment.
I call Tom Cramer's house. I know his wife will answer. She does.
I ask her if I can interview Tom for the Reader. It seems right to be up-front with his wife of 19 years. It seems wrong to go through the back door and call him at his church, which I have looked up the number for.
I have his secret number; I don't use it. I feel incredibly righteous. So much so, I overplay my hand.
I tell her it was platonic, our whole college relationship. Platonic. She pauses slightly and then says, "Of course. I understand."
"It wasn't platonic!" Tom protests that night on the telephone to his twin brother Ted. They discuss it at length. Ted agrees, it wasn't platonic. True: we didn't Go All The Way (that's what sex was called in the '80s, before it was so tightly associated with death and plague), but surely it was not Platonic. Ted bridles at the very suggestion, as he himself saw us grappling on the floor of their apartment on Castle Drive to the high-decibel sounds of "The Adulteress'" by Chrissie Hynde. The Cramer twins concede that I have lied to myself, God, and to Tom's wife, Jan.