From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
My name is Marlene. I'm a senior at Lakeview High School, and I've had a crush on this one guy for four years. At first, it was like, OK, he's cute. Yeah, let me get to know him. And then, after a while, it's, OK, I really know you, and you really know me. So do you like me? Like, giving out hints but not really saying anything. And then it goes into-- when you walk down the hall, trying to touch hands to see if he'll actually grab your hand and stuff like that.
There's times where it's like that, and you know he doesn't like you. But then, then, there's times like this one time, I sneezed. And he looked at me, he goes, "You have a really cute sneeze." It's like, Oh my god. What are you doing to me? Because it's just totally mixed signals.
With a crush, everything is more intense. Everything your crushee says and does is freighted with such meaning.
I was all day on that sneeze comment. I must've told every single one of my friends. And I was like, man, it's this stupid little "you have a cute sneeze" thing. And I was like, man, OK, get over it. Get over it. No big deal. But it was the highlight of my day, man.
Having a crush, anybody knows, means being utterly, miserably, dejected and completely filled with hope at the same time. But after four years of an on-again, off-again crush on this guy, just last week, Marlene started seeing somebody else. And she says that compared with dating, a crush is better better in certain ways.
The whole you don't know who he is, and you don't know if he likes you, and that trying to bump into him every day and stuff. But when you start dating somebody, it's just a normal thing. It's not something spontaneous. If you have a crush, you do anything just to be in his way, and it's just all this spontaneous, exciting thing. You have a boyfriend, it's just like, OK, yeah, OK. It's 3 o'clock. I see you now.
Well, today on our program, for Valentine's Day, stories about love in its earliest stage. Crushes. What's terrible about them, what's great about them, and how they can overshadow real love for some people.
Act One of our program, Kiss. Tobias Wolff has the story of a crush that lasted a lifetime.
Act Two, How a Bill Becomes-- A President, in which a press secretary for a major presidential campaign explains the dynamics of crushes that are not about love but about politics.
Act Three, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning, in which one lonely crushee finally figures out what it was that he wanted to say-- what we all want to say as the person of our dreams passes us on the street. Stay with us.
Act One: Kiss
Act One, Kiss. So what if you held onto a high school crush? Under what conditions would it never go away? Tobias Wolff has this short story.
When Joe Reed was a boy of 15, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego. But before this could happen, Joe's father died, and his mother collected a large sum from Northwestern Mutual and sold the family pharmacy and moved both Joe and herself to California.
30 years passed. In that time, he heard nothing from the girl, Mary Claude Moore, but now and then, word of her reached him through people back in Dunston. She dropped out of high school in her senior year, had a baby, got married, got divorced, remarried a few years later. That second marriage was the last thing Joe learned about Mary Claude until he got the news of her death.
He dropped by his mother's house one Sunday afternoon. They had coffee together. And that was when she told him about Mary Claude and gave him the letter. He didn't want to be thinking about what his reaction looked like, or ought to look like, so he excused himself and took the letter outside to the backyard.
According to the newspaper clipping his mother's friend had enclosed, Mary Claude appeared to have fallen asleep at the wheel and drifted into the oncoming lane of traffic. She'd been killed outright, and so had the driver of the car she hit, a dentist from Bellingham on his way home from a weekend of fishing.
That was the newspaper account. The unofficial version, which his mother's friend disparaged but passed along anyway, was that Mary Claude had been having a fling with a real estate agent named Chip Ryan. Chip Ryan drove the same unusual car as the dentist, a red Mercedes station wagon. And Mary Claude had an equally distinctive old Mustang convertible, powder blue.
Both of them lived outside town and frequently passed each other coming and going. The story was, whenever they met on an empty stretch of road, they played a game where they switched lanes at the last moment, a sort of lovers game. Mary Claude had mistaken the dentist's car for Chip's, and that was that.
Joe could hardly make sense of the story. His mother's friend doubted it was true, but conceded that it certainly was a puzzle, how Mary Claude could've fallen asleep just 100 feet past a series of tight curves. Still, she wrote, there were probably other ways of explaining it without insulting her memory and giving needless pain to her family. She was survived by her husband, three children, and two grandchildren. For some reason, the paper hadn't run a picture of her with the piece. Joe was glad of the omission.
Joe had lived another submerged life, parallel to the one known to those around him. In this other life, he hadn't left for California but had stayed on in Dunston with Mary Claude. He fell into this dream during the first months after the move in the immensity of summer, on a sun-struck street full of old geezers, where sprinklers ran at night on lawns visited only by the Mexicans who mowed them.
When his mother left her darkened bedroom long enough to chase him outside, Joe took the Saturday Evening Post to a pool in a nearby park and watched the girls oil each other and arch their glistening legs over their backs and shriek when loitering thugs threw water on them. He lay on his stomach and stared at the Post and lived his ghost life with Mary Claude.
After Joe started school, his mother took a job as an accountant for an office furniture store. A few months later, she and another woman formed a partnership and bought the owner out. Joe's mother began to dress smartly. She wore her hair straight instead of piled up on her head and let a gray streak show through. One night at dinner, she called "Joe" in such a way he realized she'd been speaking to him without his knowing it. And when he looked at her, she said, "You can't bring him back, son. You have to let him go." Joe was embarrassed at the depth of her misunderstanding, but he played along. He let her think she'd read his mind.
The high school was new and bright and vast. In the echoing hallways, the voices of the students mingled in a roar that Joe came to hear as an aspect of the silence in which he passed his days. He sometimes went home without having spoken a word to anyone. It seemed to him that he might go through the whole year that way, and the next year too, until he graduated. But before long, he became friends with his biology lab partner, who took him to parties and introduced him to girls.
When Joe got his driver's license that spring, he began to date Carla. He aced his courses and played Officer Krupke in West Side Story. In the fall of his senior year, he and Carla left a dance early and went to a motel. It was the first time for both of them and a failure. They tried again a few days later in Carla's bedroom and had better luck.
And by Christmas, Joe was starting to see Courtney on the sly. He didn't really prefer her, but it seemed inevitable that sooner or later, either he or Carla would be unfaithful, and he wanted to be the one.
It turned out to be much more complicated than he'd thought. Joe was soon exposed and denounced by both girls as a heartless cheat, which did not, it turned out, entirely discourage other girls from going out with him. And through all this, he continued his phantom life with Mary Claude. He was with her on a blanket in a moonlit clearing, or in a car parked above the river with Ray Charles on the radio, her fingertips grazing the back of his neck, her mouth open to his, her caramel taste on his lips and tongue and deep in his throat.
Only the kiss was a memory. Only the kiss was real. He'd hardly been anywhere with Mary Claude, except when they could sneak off at school and a few times in town. But from the kiss, he made everything else, or everything else made itself.
For that was how it happened. Without any effort of imagination or sense of unreality, he watched his life with Mary Claude go on as he had once believed it would. The scenes grew more particular as time passed, each new one framed by those that had gone before, and always with a kiss at the heart of it.
At Berkeley, Joe went with Maureen. And when Maureen left for a year at the Sorbonne, there was Linda, then Candace. He and Candace shared a house with two other couples until they graduated. And afterward, they rented an apartment of their own through Joe's first year of medical school. Then Candace went to New York to visit her family and never came back. She sent Joe a letter in which she asked his forgiveness for the problems she'd caused through her alcoholism, which she was now in the process of confronting. She said she couldn't return to the life she'd led in Berkeley, as he must understand.
No, Joe did not understand. They'd had their troubles, the two of them. He'd been going all out, and so had Candace, waitressing nights as she worked toward a degree in dance therapy. Of course, there were problems, but nothing that serious. He certainly didn't begrudge her a little relaxation. But when Joe's mother heard about Candace leaving, the first thing she said was that she hoped she'd get some help for her drinking. Joe hadn't mentioned the letter.
By the time he started his residency in Seattle, he'd entered a state of near quarantine that made his shadow life more moony and detailed than ever.
Dunston was just three hours north of Seattle. Joe sometimes thought of driving up on a free afternoon but never did. By then, he'd heard that Mary Claude was married again. There was no purpose in making the trip except to see her, and he was afraid that she wouldn't want to see him, and also afraid that she would. It was too late for that. She had a daughter and a husband and a house to run. She had work to do.
So did he. Useful, exacting work. It depended on a clarity Joe knew he couldn't rely on, that he had to improvise day by day. He'd lost it before, and could not risk losing it again.
When Mary Claude was killed, Joe had been married for 17 years. His wife, Liz, was a pediatrician in the same clinic where he practiced as an internist. They had a son in his junior year of high school, a daughter a year younger. The boy was a gifted cellist, unworldly, dreamy. Joe's daughter was more calculating but fiercer in her attachments once she'd made them. Joe began taking her rock climbing when she was still in grade school, and she turned out to be the most fearless and inventive partner he'd ever had.
Then came a time when his daughter ceased to confide. Both daughter and son developed private sources of amusement, and Joe began to detect a certain condescension in their handling of him. His children were slipping away into the deep forest. He tried not to hurry them with the panic he felt at the gathering signs of their departure.
Liz, too, kept changing on him. When they first met, she was girlish and unsure of herself in spite of being three years older than Joe. But since then, she'd grown calm and regal, which both unsettled and excited him. In their lovemaking, he approached her almost wistfully, and sometimes concluded with a bark of triumph, as if he'd brought a notorious virgin to ground. Away from her for more than a day or two, Joe hardly knew who he was.
And still, through all these years, he had thoughts of Mary Claude. He thought of Mary Claude sitting across from him at a table in the kitchen, barely awake, drinking coffee. He thought of them standing on a porch and waving as friends drove off. And when they were alone, Mary Claude turned to him and slipped an arm around his waist. And they went slowly inside and up the stairs, stopping to kiss on the landing.
Sometimes, Joe thought of what was to follow, but this was the moment he lingered on. The kiss. Joe remembered very well what it was like to kiss Mary Claude. He had done it as much as anyone could for as long as they were going together, which came to just over three months.
Mary Claude's father owned a dairy farm several miles out of town. Her mother had moved away when Mary Claude was 11, taking her daughter with her. She married again, but things did not go well between her daughter and this new husband, and she sent Mary Claude back to her father when she was 15. Joe had gone through the first six years of grade school barely noticing her, drab little hick that she was.
But she came back a different girl, witchy and vivid. She mouthed off to the teachers and walked around in a pout with her back arched like a bow. She had no friends except for an equally friendless cousin. During volleyball games in her gym class, she baited the other girls by deliberately hitting the ball lot of bounds or into the net. She cut classes and smoked and made out with other girls' boyfriends, or so it was said.
And Joe, curious to test the rumor, found it to be true. Mary Claude went behind the school with him, during a dance to which he'd brought another girl, and kept him out there for over an hour. He knew she was doing it to shame his date, at first anyway, until she warmed to him. But once he started, he couldn't stop kissing her.
Joe had, by then, kissed several girls and thought he had a pretty fair idea of the possibilities of a kiss. Kissing was good. But he tended to think of it as a beachhead from which to launch more serious operations, and a safe haven when, inevitably, he was forced to retreat. But he didn't remember to try anything else that night, leaning against the gymnasium wall with this girl, who tasted so good and pressed so fully against him, humming in his ear when they stopped to breathe and swaying to the music that rattled the high windows above them.
There were other couples along the wall, and Joe knew his date would hear about this. But when he started to lean away, Mary Claude laid her fingers along his cheeks and guided his mouth back to hers. And after that, he forgot leaving. He would have stayed there all night with no sense of time passing, but finally, a girl came out and told Mary Claude that her ride was waiting to take her home. She turned to go, then stopped and kissed Joe again. He walked around the school twice before going back inside. The gym was almost empty. His date had left with friends.
When he saw Mary Claude in the hallway on Monday morning, he did not pretend that nothing had happened, nor did she. She'd let him take her books and walk her to class. At the lunch period, they went to the cafeteria and sat across from each other. He understood what would happen, the hush around them, how they'd looked at, even by his friends. Joe knew the rules. He'd been a [BLEEP] and hurt a nice girl. And for Mary Claude, of all people. You could make out with Mary Claude, but you had to laugh about it later and cut her dead.
They ate without talking. Her color was high. Otherwise, she gave nothing away. She helped herself to his carrots, and that was that. They were a pair.
There was a fern-choked gully behind the school. There were the stands by the football field, empty classrooms. She tasted of lipstick and cigarettes and candy. Which she opened her mouth to his, the first sensation was a shock of relief as the tightness melted in a rush from his neck and shoulders. And then, he was swaying with her, drinking that smoky sweetness, drinking forgetfulness of the schoolwork he had not done, the stammer he was developing, his mother dazed and pale, the room at the end of the hallway where his father lay gasping for the next breath like a trout dropped on the river bank.
He forgot to plan what to try next, where to touch, how hard to press. He stopped thinking ahead. There was no ahead, no before, and no after. He was itchy with thirst and deeply satisfied all at once.
And Mary Claude was thirsty for him. He'd never have this happened before, a girl impatient for the taste of him, greedy for it. She did not like to break off. When he leaned away for a breath, she would close her fingers in his hair and pull him back to her. She sometimes said his name in a low, almost mocking way, and the sound of it whipped him around is if she'd yanked on a leash.
Mary Claude some grew careless with their privacy. She didn't care who saw them or when. She'd command a kiss-- a profound kiss-- as she boarded her bus, or in the hallway, even on the street in town when her father let her go in for some shopping after school. Joe knew that it went beyond carelessness, that she was making a display of their appetite, perhaps especially of his appetite for her. He could see that she was proud of her claim on him, and this made him proud and brazen too. He didn't mind if people thought they were ridiculous, even a sort of joke, the two of them stitched together at the mouth, as his mother put it.
Joe's mother had heard about them. She heard everything in the pharmacy. At first, she came at him aslant about it. Then she lost patience. Was this the time to be carrying on with some girl? Couldn't he sit with his father a while instead of mooning in his room and tying up the telephone? Would that be too much to ask? Joe knew he should care that he was giving his mother trouble, but nothing she said touched him. It wasn't out of concern for her that he ruined everything.
He and Mary Claude were in the stands during a basketball game. She was bored. She wanted to leave, go outside. Joe kept putting her off. The game was close. She started to play with the hair at the nape of his neck. He liked the feeling, and almost surrendered to it, but something came over him, and he shrugged her hand off. He felt Mary Claude go still beside him. He knew she was looking at him, but he kept his eyes on the players, and even produced a shout when one of them goofed a pass.
Mary Claude slid her fingers back into his hair, tightened them, and began to turn his head toward hers. Without taking his eyes from the game, he gave a rough shake and pulled away. Mary Claude stood up, but waited there a moment. And though Joe knew he could still turn to her, even then, he did not.
She made her way to the aisle. He watched her descend the steps and cross in front of the stands and leave the gym. The game had become meaningless to him, but he sat through the rest of it. His mouth was dry. His heart thudded as if it were hollow.
Tobias Wolff's story continues, plus other stories, in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's program, for Valentine's Day, Crushes. What's good about them, what's terrible about them, what happens when they take over your life. Tobias Wolff continues with his short story, "Kiss."
Joe phoned Mary Claude when he got home, but no one answered. He called again just before he went to bed, and someone picked up but didn't say anything. "Mary Claude," he said. "Mary Claude, please."
She wouldn't answer. He knew she was waiting for him to give an account, to justify himself, and he couldn't think what to say. In the end, all he could say was her name, "Mary Claude," and then she hung up.
She hung up whenever he called. He pushed notes into her locker and got no answer. He met her bus every morning, and she walked right past him. He waited outside her classrooms and followed her down the hall and out to the bus stop after school. He knew he was making a fool of himself, but he had no choice. There was no other way to be close to her.
His mother heard about it and demanded that he leave the girl alone. It made no difference. Joe continued to trail Mary Claude. And still, Mary Claude did not relent.
They had one class together. Washington State history. She sat two seats ahead of him in the next row to the left. He could watch Mary Claude without seeing him watch her, though of course, she knew. He was alert to any movement that allowed him a view of Mary Claude's mouth. She often turned to look at the clock over the door, and Joe never failed to seize that glint of her face in profile, the high forehead, the full mouth. When he saw her mouth, he leaned forward, narrowing the distance by at least that much.
It was wrong that he couldn't put his mouth to hers. It was an impossible mistake that kept him baffled and on edge. She must be feeling what he was feeling. Joe was sure of that. If he was cut off from her, she was cut off from him. She was in exile too. But it went on and on. And Joe came to understand that Mary Claude didn't know how to end it, that she was waiting for him to find a way. But what could he do when she wouldn't speak to him, when she wouldn't even look at him?
Then she began keeping company with Al Dodge. Al was a senior, a quiet, well-liked boy who struggled in school and had a limp from polio. He lived just up the road from Mary Claude. He drove to school, and Mary Claude started riding with him instead of taking the bus. They often ate lunch together.
Joe was confused at first. Then he saw that this was his signal. He waited for Al outside the wood shop and begin to tell him about Mary Claude and himself, but Al wouldn't listen. He tried to brush past, but Joe wasn't through talking and blocked his way. Al pushed at him, and his bad leg gave out, and he went down, his metal brace clattering on the concrete.
Joe bent to help him up, but two boys ran over and shouldered him aside. One of them gave Joe a look as he struggled to lift Al to his feet. Joe wanted to explain everything, and the impossibility of ever doing this left him no choice but to smile at the boy and tell him to go [BLEEP] himself.
He could see when he got home that his mother already knew about it. She sent him to work in the store and spoke to him only when she had to. While he was doing the dishes that night, she came to the kitchen and told him that his sister and her husband were willing to have Joe come live with them until things got sorted out. Until his father died, Joe took her to mean.
Her face was flushed, her eyes brilliant. She stood erect in the doorway and forced him to look at her. She was magnificent, and he resented it. Did he want to go to San Diego? Did he want to do that? No? Was he sure? All right, she said. She needed him here. But one more thing like this, he'd be on the first bus out of town. Did he understand? Good.
Now she wanted Joe to go to his father and make the same promise to him. Joe did no such thing. He listened to the weird submarine clankings emanating from his father's oxygen tank, and studied the pattern in the rug, and answered a few wheezy questions about his schoolwork, and then he got the hell out of there, but not before his father put his dry, yellow hand on Joe's wrist and pulled him down into an embrace that left him sick with horror.
He stopped following Mary Claude to her classes. She rode to school with Al Dodge, and they sometimes ate together, but Joe could see there was nothing between them. She was alone, as before. So was Joe, more than ever, the guy who picked on cripples. He didn't follow Mary Claude, but he watched her, from nearby when he could, but mostly from a distance, cocking her hip to hold her locker door open, at a cafeteria table, tearing at the peel of an orange with her strong, white fingers.
It was late May. In a couple of weeks, school would be over, and he'd have no way of breaking the spell he had brought on them. He decided he would kiss her. She was like him. After the first taste, she always wanted another, and then another, until she lost herself. That was what they needed, to lose themselves again.
Mary Claude's gym teacher took the girls outside on warm days for softball and track. Joe's French class met that period, but he sometimes cut out early to stand in the shade of the trees at the near end of the field and watch Mary Claude. When the teacher led the class back inside, Mary Claude always made a point of lagging far behind, as if the force that impelled the others had no hold on her.
He stood under a horse-chestnut tree beside the path that led to the locker rooms. The tree was in bloom. Eyes had gone weepy and raw from the pollen. When she drew near to him, he spoke her name and she looked up without surprise. He'd had something all planned out to say, but now that he was close to her, he forgot what it was. The whiteness of her legs emptied him of words. She waited, arms still crossed. Then she said, "You been crying?"
Joe wasn't sure what happened next. Even right after it happened, he had no confidence in any account, even in his own memory, and had accepted the blame that fell on him without protest and without belief. But he knew that it started with Mary Claude's crack about his eyes. He heard her mockery as forgiveness. Forgiveness and summons. It sent a rush of heat to his face. He could still feel it, thinking back.
Then he lost the thread. He remembered holding one of her hands in both of his, and her leaning away and looking at him. But struggling? Perhaps. Then he remembered being with her under the tree, his arms around her. But how they got there, he couldn't say. Maybe he led her there. Maybe he really did force her.
The one thing he was sure of was that her mouth was opening to his when the gym teacher grabbed his collar. Even as she wrenched him back, shirt front bunched at his throat, he was straining forward to seal the kiss. Then Mary Claude turned aside and started gagging and weeping, and he knew he'd have to start all over again.
He didn't argue with anything anyone said. His mother surprised him by trying to make the principal feel sorry for her, something he'd never seen her do. But it didn't pay off. The principal refused to let Joe finish out the year. As he was clearing out his locker, a couple of seniors walked past and made smooching sounds. And other students took it up as Joe carried his stuff down the hallway.
Joe's mother talked about sending him to San Diego that weekend. He'd made up his mind to refuse, but it never came to a test. Late Wednesday afternoon, his father went into a coma. Until he died that evening, Joe kept the watch with his mother, prowling the bedroom while his mother held her husband's hand. He was steady at his mother's side, gallant and grave.
On the night after the funeral, he slipped downstairs and felt for the car keys on the hook where they were kept. Not there. Not there the next night either. So, his mother had second-guessed him. Joe was surprised that she had calculated so coolly in her grief. It made him think differently of her, better and worse.
Joe took the letter into his mother's yard and studied it a while. Hunched in a lawn chair, elbows on his knees, he waited to be struck. But down the street, someone was blasting a Strauss waltz through an open window. And he couldn't stop himself from following it, even conducting it with minute twitches of his head, though he'd lost his taste for old Vienna after Candace went on a Strauss binge the year before she left.
The chair had looked dry when he sat down, but that morning's dew still lingered between the straps of webbing. It seeped into his pants, warm, clinging. The grass needed a trim. Joe knew that if he looked up, he'd see his mother watching him from the kitchen window, pulling a long face for what she imagined he was feeling. What he did feel was embarrassment at this hambone attempt to create sorrow by imitating it. Pathetic. Pathetic.
He rocked to his feet, looked sourly around as he waited for a purpose to form, then started toward the shed where the mower was kept. It would come later if it came at all. Sometimes it didn't. He lost patience and hardly ever thought of them again, and then, with a regret that he recognized as mostly polite. Same with a colleague who was killed not long ago on Lake Tahoe when he hit a beer cooler while water skiing. But then, water skiing was such an untragic way to go, and the derelict cooler, a ludicrous touch.
No, if it came, it would come from behind and push him into a hole so deep he'd forget what it was like to be out of it. That was what happened with his beautiful niece, Margaret, his sister's only child. She was 28. Joe had warned her. She had diabetes and was drinking heavily. But somehow, he'd failed to expect it himself. He got clobbered a few weeks after her death, laid low.
Something like it happened to him after his son was born. One night, holding the baby, he remembered with perfect clarity his own father holding him, looking down at him. His father was smiling. There was that roguish gap between his teeth, the crazy, up-curved eyebrow. It was a look of unguarded benevolence. Joe knew it well. He'd grown up in the light of his father's pleasure in him. And now he figured that by some trick of the mind, he had imposed on a scene too distant for recall.
And then, a few days later, he was doing some paperwork after the clinic closed and looked up into the dim corridor. And there he was in his parents house again, in the hallway just outside their bedroom. And as he stood there, unable to move, the wheezing, yellow-faced monster who had taken his father's place turned slowly and smiled that kindly smile and lifted his long yellow fingers and tried to speak.
Joe cried out, or thought he did. The room had that shocked, expectant air. But if so, no one had heard him.
The lawnmower had a bent blade and shook convulsively as Joe worked his way around the yard. it was folly to use it in this condition, but the pushing felt good and he muscled it on. He spun through a corner and saw his mother in the kitchen window, her face overlaid with leaves reflected from the orange tree. She looked worried. Joe raised a hand and she made a little wave back, the same regretful wave she used to give from the departing car when they left him at scout camp in the summer. The same wave, the same uncertain smile, except she was strong and handsome then. And now, she was old and had to wear a diaper.
He turned his attention to the rock border where he'd pranged the blade last time. And when he looked up again, she was gone. His hands tingled, his brow dripped, his shirt was soaked through. As he worked, he ceased to think, or to feel himself think. And then it came to him. The real estate agent, Chip Ryan. Little Chip. He hadn't placed him at first because the boy had been so young-- just seven or eight-- when Joe left Dunston.
Chip's older brother had been a friend of Joe's. Chip used to hang around while they played records and talked, but he didn't butt in or act bratty. Joe had been struck by that. What a nice little kid he was, little Chip, sitting there with his pet rabbit, stroking its ears while he looked up at the big boys. Little Chip and Mary Claude.
The letter didn't say whether Chip was married or single. Either way, he was on the prowl, or they wouldn't be telling that story. And of all the girls in that long, green valley, he had to pick Mary Claude, if it was true. Of course it was true. He bullied the mower through the last couple of turns and cut the engine. A pall of exhaust hung above the yard.
He heard the music again. Violins. Strauss still. He nodded helplessly along as he toweled himself down with his shirt. He'd heard the piece 100 times. 500 hundred times, Candace dancing naked through their apartment to the grand rise and fall of it, gleaming with sweat, eyes half-closed.
But when he reached for the name, he felt it slip away. It baffled him that he could not hold on to something he'd known so well. And he stood fixed in his puzzlement as the music swelled to a finish and died. And a dog barked somewhere, and another waltz began.
Tobias Wolff is the author of several books, including The Night in Question and This Boy's Life. His story "Kiss" first appeared in The New Yorker magazine.
[MUSIC--"I THINK I NEED A NEW HEART" BY THE MAGNETIC FIELDS]
Act Two: How A Bill Becomes — A President
Act Two, How a Bill Becomes A President. Our program today is about crushes, and this story is about a very specialized kind of crush, the political crush. This is a crush that wants only for a candidate to get elected to office. It is a rarely-discussed force in our national life.
Julia Rothwax, for example, says she doesn't care if she ever speaks with presidential candidate Bill Bradley, but she wants him to win the White House. Her political feelings for him started starring when she saw him talk about the normally uncrushworthy subject of campaign finance reform. Now she's one of his press secretaries in New York.
She's worked for one other presidential campaign, for another Bill-- Bill Clinton in 1992. But after Clinton took office, she says the reality of his presidency did not match her hopes for it. She says "crush" isn't exactly the right word for the kind of political feeling that I'm trying to describe.
But I do think there's parallels to-- that every now and then, somebody comes along that makes you feel extremely hopeful and excited. And then you go through a process of only thinking about that thing and that person.
What I think it's closer to is the feeling of falling in love than it is to a feeling of a crash. It doesn't feel like a crush to me. It's sort of a process. You have your first meeting or your first acquaintance with the candidate. And at that first meeting, which for me was that campaign finance reform speech that Bradley gave, you're assessing in the same way you would on a first date. I heard the speech and I was moved by it. And I wanted to hear more, and I wanted to learn more, and I got really interested.
So this is like the curiosity phase.
The curiosity phase. Yeah. And also the sort of gathering information. You're like, "Who is this person and are they as good as they seem?" Yeah, so you go through that. And then you commit. Then you sign up. I'm a full-time staffer now. So I actually left my job, and I gave stuff up, and I threw myself into this thing. And then you see where it goes.
This kind of political falling in love, is there a difference for you in the Bradley campaign from the way that it felt with Clinton?
Well, yeah, there's a few differences. With Clinton, if it was a political falling in love, it was my first time out. And the first time you fall in love, you fall hard, and then you usually, I guess, end up feeling disillusioned or disheartened. Or your expectations are too high, and then reality sets in.
And with Bradley, I'm a little bit older, I'm a little bit wiser. And he doesn't-- well, the truth is, he doesn't work it, I guess is the right term. You felt that there was a feeling on the Clinton campaign that everybody should be sort of starry eyed about him.
And Bradley's charming in this different way. There's a jazzier, high-school kind of first falling in love that maybe Clinton was for me. And Bradley feels much more serious and much more mature.
Well, you know that idea that when you get into a new relationship, that it's a reaction to the relationship before--
--so, like, the opposite person of the one who you just were with?
Right. Pendulum. Pendulum swinging, you're talking about.
Yeah, is that true for you in this case?
Let's think about that. I guess with Bradley, I have liked it that one of his themes is that he's telling you what he really thinks. I think partly, with Clinton, what was hard for everybody is that you kind of got the sense that there were a lot of political considerations behind what he did and what he said. And with Bradley, it feels more pure.
And I have to say, I feel like both of us are approaching this conversation rather tentatively because you have a real job in politics. And so, to talk about the emotional component behind it, it feels a little like, is this is right to talk about? Though I have to say, if you think about people working in politics, if they don't have a feeling behind the work they're doing, if they aren't idealistic at some level-- if you think about people who aren't, your heart sinks.
You know what I mean? You want to believe that the people who are working with candidates and working in politics are doing it because they believe in something.
I think a lot of my friends who I did the '92 campaign with actually-- everybody wants it to happen again, because it's a positive-- it's a good feeling. You get sucked back in, and it takes over your life. And you start caring maybe a little too much. And you do have to be careful about it, because you have to be working for somebody who's going to be responsible with your time and your affections and your commitment, I guess.
And I guess I feel like Bradley, he does do that as a candidate. And if you talk about it as a political falling in love, a relationship, and you're looking as you get older, you look for different things. You're looking for balance, and you don't want quite as much of a Clinton-esque roller coaster, I guess.
One of the things, when you have a real crush, or you're really falling in love with a person in a real setting, is that you want to talk about them all the time. And thinking about this kind of political falling in love, you're in a situation where you get to talk about him all the time.
Right, I'm a press secretary, so my--
When I'm actually falling in love with a real person in my real life, I don't go around and gush. But with a candidate, it's something to share, so that's what's nice about the gushing about it, is because you do want to tell people. Because you've discovered something that's great. But they can have it too. That's what's different about political falling in love. Anybody could sign up and sign on and help us win this election.
Julia Rothwax is a press secretary for the Bill Bradley campaign in New York.
[MUSIC--"WEDDING BELL BLUES" BY FIFTH DIMENSION]
Act Three: On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning
Act Three, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. We close our show today with this story, with as pure a depiction of unadulterated crush feeling as possibly can be imagined, from Haruki Murakami. It's read for us by actor Matt Malloy.
One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo's fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.
Tell you the truth, she's not that good looking. She doesn't stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn't young either-- must be near 30, not even close to a "girl," properly speaking. But still, I know from 50 yards away she's the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.
Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl-- one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers. Or you're drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I'll catch myself staring at a girl at the table next to mine because I like the shape of her nose.
But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived notion. As much as I like noses, I can't recall the shape of hers, or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It's weird.
She's walking east to west and I west to east. It's a really nice April morning. Wish I could talk to her. Half an hour would be plenty. Just ask her about herself, tell her about myself, and, what I'd really like to do, explain to her the complexities of fate that led to our passing each other on a side street in Harujuku on a beautiful April morning in 1981. This was something sure to be crammed full of warm secrets. It's like an antique clock built when peace filled the world.
After talking, we'd have lunch somewhere. Maybe see a Woody Allen movie. Stop by a hotel bar for cocktails. With any kind of luck, we might end up in bed.
Potentiality knocks on the door of my heart.
Now the distance between us has narrowed to 15 yards. How can I approach her? What should I say?
"Good morning, miss. Do you think you could spare half an hour for a little conversation?"
Ridiculous. I'd sound like an insurance salesman.
"Pardon me, but would you happen to know if there's an all-night cleaner in the neighborhood?"
No, this is just as ridiculous. I'm not carrying any laundry, for one thing. Who's going to buy a line like that? Maybe the simple truth would do.
"Good morning. You are the 100% perfect girl for me."
No, she wouldn't believe it. Or even if she did, she might not want to talk to me. Sorry, she could say, I might be the 100% perfect girl for you, but you're not the 100% perfect boy for me. It could happen. And if I found myself in that situation, I'd probably go to pieces. I'd never recover from the shock. I'm 32, and that's what growing older is all about.
We pass in front of a flower shop. A small, warm air mass touches my skin. The asphalt is damp, and I catch the scent of roses. I can't bring myself to speak to her. She wears a white sweater. and in her right hand she holds a crisp, white envelope lacking only a stamp. So, she's written somebody a letter. Maybe spent the whole night writing, to judge from the sleepy look in her eyes. The envelope could carry every secret she's ever had.
I take a few more strides and turn. She's lost in the crowd.
Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would've been a long speech, though, far too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical. It would have started, once upon a time, and ended, a sad story, don't you think?
Once upon a time, there lived a boy and a girl. The boy was 18 and the girl 16. He was not unusually handsome, and she was not especially beautiful. They were just an ordinary lonely boy and an ordinary lonely girl, like all the others. But they believed with their whole hearts that somewhere in the world, there lived the 100% perfect boy and the 100% perfect girl for them. Yes, they believed in a miracle, and that miracle actually happened. One day, they came upon each other on the corner of a street.
"This is amazing," he said. "I've been looking for you all my life. You may not believe this, but you are the 100% perfect girl for me."
"And you," she said to him, "are the 100% perfect boy for me, exactly as I pictured you in every detail. It's like a dream."
They sat on a park bench, held hands and told each other their stories hour after hour. They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. What a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It's a miracle, a cosmic miracle.
As they sat and talked, however, a tiny, tiny, sliver of doubt took root in their hearts. Was it really all right for one's dreams to come true so easily?
And so, when there came a momentary lull in the conversation, the boy said to the girl, "Let's test ourselves just once. If we really are each other's 100% perfect lovers, then sometime, somewhere, we will meet again without fail. And when that happens, we will know the we are the 100% perfect ones. We'll marry then and there. What do you think?"
"Yes," she said. "That is exactly what we should do."
And so they parted, she to the east and he to the west. The test they had agreed upon, however, was utterly unnecessary. They should never have undertaken it, because they really and truly were each other's 100% perfect lovers, and it was a miracle that they had ever met. But it was impossible for them to know this, young as they were. The cold, indifferent waves of fate proceeded to toss them unmercifully.
One winter, both the boy and the girl came down with the season's terrible influenza. And after drifting for weeks between life and death, they lost all memory of their earlier years. When they awoke, their heads were as empty as the young D.H. Lawrence's piggy bank.
They were two bright, determined young people, however. And through their unremitting efforts, they were able to acquire once again the knowledge and feeling that qualified them to return as full-fledged members of society. Heaven be praised, they became truly upstanding citizens who knew how to transfer from one subway line to another, who were capable of sending special delivery letters at the post office. Indeed, they even experienced love again, sometimes as much as 75% or even 85% love.
Time passed with shocking swiftness. Soon, the boy was 32, the girl 30. One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from west to east, while the girl, intending to send a special delivery letter, was walking from east to west, both along the same narrow street in the Harujuku neighborhood of Tokyo. They passed each other in the very center of the street. The faintest gleam of their lost memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts. Each felt a rumbling in the chest, and they knew.
She is the 100% perfect girl for me.
He is the 100% perfect boy for me.
But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of 14 years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd forever. A sad story, don't you think?
Yes. That's it. That's what I should've said to her.
Haruki Murakami's short story is in his collection of stories, The Elephant Vanishes. Our reader, Matt Malloy, can be seen in the films Cookie's Fortune, In the Company of Men, Election, and so many more.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, and Blue Chevigny. Production help from Todd Bachmann and [? Erik Hoversten. ?]
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. What does it mean that he greets me every day with,
Good morning. You are the 100% perfect girl for me.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI. Public Radio International.