308: Star-Crossed Love
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OK, so let me just ask you this straight off. We're doing a show this week about doomed love.
What was that "Oh"? What did that "Oh" mean?
Well, I feel like that's the most frequent situation I get. So frequently, they're hopeful and I am really pessimistic.
So we thought to ourselves, me and the people who work on this radio show, OK, Valentine's Day. Let's do a show of incredibly romantic stories. And of course, some of the most romantic stories are stories of doomed love, your Romeo and Juliet kinds of stories. Star-crossed lovers. Somehow the fact that they can never be makes their love seem all the more intense. But when we turned to somebody who you'd think would be seeing lots of these kinds of stories in real life, Amy Dickinson, who writes the "Ask Amy" advice column in about 150 newspapers, she said, yes, she sees stories of doomed love all the time. All the time. It's the most frequent thing that she sees, but usually it is not so romantic.
OK. Here's one.
"Dear Amy. I'm in love with a very charming older man. He's always there for me when something arises, and I have some doozies arise. We get along well, enjoy each other's company. We hardly ever fight except over the following six things. One, he cheated on me, then when caught, said he stopped. Two, he has female friends he sees and purposely doesn't share those visits with me, and has never introduced me to any of them. Three, I've never met any of his male friends. Four, he's never taken me to work functions, as he has attended several of mine. Five, except for when talking to family, he doesn't acknowledge my presence to callers on the phone. And six, when I catch him lying, hiding something, or disrespecting my feelings, he withdraws, blames me, never apologizes, and says he's in pain over my questioning of his behavior.
At one time, these things hurt me and that hurt turned into insecurity and rage when I wasn't heard and my feelings weren't accepted. Now I think something is fundamentally wrong with this picture. I'm getting mixed signals. What do you think?"
OK, so he's still seeing other women. He's keeping her a secret. Maybe he's married to somebody else.
But that's the only thing that's wrong. Otherwise it's great.
So they are totally doomed.
What are you going to say to her? What did you say to her?
You are, one, totally doomed. Two, absolutely doomed. Three- you know, I'll give her a list.
Let me read another one to you. This came in. "Dear Amy. I've been dating a man on and off for at least 15 years. He let me know on the first date that he's a confirmed bachelor. I'm single, too. Sometimes I don't hear from him for more than a year."
Just a second. Doesn't confirmed bachelor mean gay?
I think so, as we'll see.
Yeah. "I'm single, too. Sometimes I don't hear from him for more than a year, and then he'll call to go out. Do you think I should always go out with him when he calls? I don't want to seem desperate. Also, do you think I should call him when I don't hear from him? I don't want him to think I'm a chaser. I like him very much and I find him very interesting to talk to. He's also very smart and I like smart men. So far, we've had a very platonic relationship."
He's extremely well-groomed.
If you put her in the column, are you going to say, "Will and Grace."
Yeah, I do. Oh, yeah. I have done that. I will say, "This man is definitely gay. Just so you know that. That's what's behind the platonic, 15 years, a year between phone calls. He's definitely gay." Yeah, I've done that. "Just FYI."
As for the kind of old-fashioned star-crossed love, the romantic kind, where two people are destined for each other and they struggle against great odds and love triumphs-- I should not have asked Amy. She just had a few letters like that. These situations are rare, she says. She had a Jewish woman and a Hindu Sikh man, very much in love, both afraid of how their families were going to react and how they were going to make a life together. She had first cousins, first cousins in love, and though it's legal for them to marry in a dozen states, she says they would face real hurdles with their family. Or there was this letter she got, for her very first column.
This woman was stopping at a gas station every day on her way home from work. And the guy who worked at the gas station had a huge crush on her. And he wrote to me, wondering if he-- even though he's a gas station attendant and she was, he thought, a busy executive, what should he do? And in that case I felt really-- I was young. What did I know? I said, "Go for it. Look for signs that she's interested in you. She seems to be coming to the gas station every single day and buying gas in very small amounts. I think she's interested."
Right, she's coming there for you.
"If she's finding a reason to talk to you--" because they were chit-chatting.
So, about a week after it ran, I got a letter from her. She said, "I think I'm the woman in the letter. I think I'm the woman who's stopping in. And you know what, I'm interested. What should I do?"
And I said, "OK. Now I'm out of it. Now I'm getting out of this [UNINTELLIGIBLE]-- Now you take your letter, he'll take his letter, and now you have something real to talk about."
So there's a happy story for Valentine's Day.
Oh. Yeah, well, you could seize on that. A story where you don't know the ending is a happy story.
Listen to the words that you are saying. "Yeah, you can seize on that," meaning that straw, that tiny little straw.
Yes, you grab that, baby. You hang on.
You know what you are? You know what you are? You're like a cop. You know what I mean? All you see is the worst cases.
All I see is crooks and scowls. I know.
Exactly. All you see is the bad. So you have no idea that it can be something else.
Yeah. That's right. I've been walking the streets of Hell's Kitchen.
Where is the romance, my friends? Where is the romance these days? Well, today in our program, for Valentine's Day, we head out into the world looking for stories of true love, love that fate is against in every way. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. We bring you three stories of star-crossed love today.
Act One, Prisoner of Love. In that act, two people overcome incredible barriers to their love. Their countries are at war. He's Iraqi. She's American. He is a prisoner. She is his guard.
Act Two, The Diary of Mrs. Sam Horrigan. A high-school girl tells the story of one doomed love that improbably and accidentally and against her will became a second doomed love story.
Act Three, So a Chipmunk and a Squirrel Walk Into a Bar. In that act, a brand-new story by David Sedaris, a look inside what it is really like, really truly like, when families disapprove, when society looks down its nose, where there's a love and one of you is a chipmunk and the other is a squirrel. Stay with us.
Act One: Prisoner Of Love
Act One, Prisoner of Love. This is a kind of unlikely love story, and the only reason that it could happen at all is a series of very unlikely events that precede it. And, I've got to say, we're going to dwell on those events here for a minute or two, because they really are kind of incredible.
It starts with a kid, this kid, Shant Kenderian, who's Armenian, born and raised in Baghdad. When he's 13, his parents divorce. He goes to live with his mom in suburban Illinois, outside Chicago. Basically, he becomes an American kid, fluent in English. The summer before his senior year, he goes to visit his dad in Iraq. He's there for a few days. The Iran-Iraq war starts. Borders are closed. He's stuck.
Soon enough, he's drafted into the Iran-Iraq war. He spends three and a half years fighting the Iranians. He's at the front lines. He's near Basra. The war ends. After the war, borders are reopened. He begins applying again to renew his US green card and join his mother, who's now moved to LA. Then, before that process is completed, Iraq invades Kuwait. Again, borders close. All the men under 55 are drafted. Shant ends up in the Iraqi navy. Who even knew they had a navy, right?
So in a tiny boat-- it's like a landing craft. Only two of the 30 guys on the boat actually have guns. Very little food, very little water. Their job is-- here's their mission. Are you ready? They're supposed to sail into the Persian Gulf, tossing 400-pound floating mines into the water. Now, normally, these kinds of mines, you anchor them down to the bottom, and you keep track of where they are on a map, so you know where they are. Their mission? They're just supposed to toss them off the side of the boat and then gun the engine to get away before the mines float back up and explode. So then they drop the mines. And what they're supposed to do is drop the mines, pass through these waters, and then drive back through the same water that they've just littered with mines. That's their job. OK.
So, for Shant and the other guys in the boat, the way that they saw it is that their greatest hope of getting out of all this alive is that they would be captured, captured and captured quickly by the Americans. And in fact, after boat fires and air attacks, the Americans see them. They attack. They abandon ship. They're floating in this little life raft, waiting to be taken prisoner, not sure what's going to happen to them next. All right. Here's Shant. He's going to read from a memoir that he wrote.
While the helicopter orbited around the life raft and boat, it passed by the raft once every few minutes. Ahmed was excited, like a little puppy. He followed the helicopter with his eyes and whole body, making it very uncomfortable in the crowded raft. When the helicopter made a sudden turn, Ahmed too swung around, and elbowed Riyadh in his already-injured face, giving him a nosebleed. Whenever the helicopter came close to the raft, we cheered and waved at the pilot in an overly friendly gesture. After doing this a dozen times, I explained to my Iraqi friends that the pilot understood the message. We didn't need to cheer anymore. Two more helicopters came, followed by a large missile frigate.
"They're going to kill us," cried Ahmed.
"Don't be ridiculous. We surrendered," I told him. "They're here to pick us up."
"Do you think they will beat us up or torture us?" Munther asked this time.
"I don't think so," I said.
"But weren't they the ones who dropped nuclear bombs on Japan? And what about the war they fought in Vietnam? I read that many Americans married Vietnamese women, and when the war was over, they left them behind with their children." Apparently, Munther had been reading some Iraqi propaganda.
"They didn't do this to torture the Vietnamese women," I said. "I really don't think anyone's going to marry you and leave you behind." A wave of laughter shook the raft.
There were approximately 100 Americans out on the deck of the missile frigate. We saw smiling faces, cameras flashing, and video cameras. For each Iraqi on the life raft, there were at least two or three guns and one camera pointed at us, ready to go off. The contrast between the American and Iraqi soldiers was astounding. They looked like athletes, like swimmers and boxers and football players. We stood with our wasted bodies, malnourished and plagued. We felt like an inferior species.
We had, between 15 of us, two guns, one helmet, and 15 old gas masks. Each American soldier had his own gun, helmet, gas mask, bulletproof vest, eye protection goggles, flashlights, and ear plugs. Ear plugs. The luxury of that amazed me. Here was a country that respected its soldiers so much it would even take care of their ears. I must have stared too long, because the guard became uncomfortable and told me to look away.
I was the 11th prisoner aboard the USS Curts, and the 23rd POW of Desert Storm. It was noon of January 24, 1991, eight days into the war.
So the Americans figure out right away that Shant is different from all these other prisoners. For one thing, he's fluent in English. Because of that, they assume that either he is a high-ranking Iraqi officer or he's a spy. He is put through many, many interrogations with a revolving cast of American interrogators. He writes that actually his treatment is not so bad, but it is harrowing. He is constantly blindfolded and handcuffed and forced to spend several days with real Iraqi officers in an outdoor pit dug in the sand at a base in Saudi Arabia.
After about six weeks of this, he says, he's sent to another POW camp, the 403rd, where he's supposed to wait to be transferred to Saudi custody. He of course does not want Saudi custody. He wants to go to America. And it's at the 403rd that the Americans start to believe his story. And they can use his translation skills, so they make him a trustee, meaning that he acts as kind of an employee, and has more freedom and he isn't subject to interrogations anymore. And it's while working at the 403rd that he meets Monica.
It was perhaps the second day at the 403rd when the Americans asked if I could help unload some boxes of MREs. The truck driver happened to be an attractive young female soldier. She handed down the boxes from the truck bed while we stacked them in the supply tent nearby. The two Iraqi POWs who were helping me found it highly strange to interact with a woman in this way.
"Do they do the same work as men?" asked one of them.
"It looks like it. See? This one is driving a truck," answered the other. Women drove cars in Iraq, but it was unheard of to see one driving a truck.
"American guys don't seem to care if there are females among them," said the first.
The second one smiled. "I'm sure it's a different story at night."
The guys seemed baffled at how the male American soldiers interacted with the woman in such a matter-of-fact way. As for me, I had lived in the US. In Iraq, we were Christians, not Muslims, so I had enjoyed plenty of social interaction with women. I wasn't inclined to fall in love just because a female soldier handed me a box of MREs. Still, I was hardly desensitized to her presence either. She was beautiful. She had red hair. She smiled.
While we were working to unload the truck, I was aware that she had noticed me too, but more in a way where she actually seemed to be looking away from me a little more than one normally would in a work-together situation. I continued unloading the truck, reminding myself that I wasn't there to find a girlfriend in a POW camp. When we'd finally finished unloading the MREs, she came over to talk. We introduced ourselves. Monica was her name. It turned out she had heard about me, and was curious to learn about my journey from high school in the Chicago suburbs to prisoner of war in Saudi Arabia.
I told her about myself. I couldn't tell what she was thinking, but she listened intently, and only interrupted to ask more questions. I was surprised by how good it felt to have this woman show a genuine interest in me as an individual human being and not just some enemy soldier. It wasn't really anything specific she said. She asked me the same questions I was asked every day during interrogation. The difference was in her body language, the way she leaned on her truck beside me, and the sound of her voice.
Over the next few days, I watched Monica a lot. She had this breezy, warm, gentle air about her that seemed so California to me. It was just her smile and laugh, the way she brought a playful atmosphere into the processing tent, something I never would have expected in the military during wartime. She totally contrasted with this harsh and deadly place.
For the next several days, the words "good morning" and "good night" were all that we said to one another. In the beginning, I was careful never to greet her first, since I had this little problem of being an enemy POW. And when I returned her greeting, I was careful to use the American custom of meeting a woman's gaze directly but not staring at her. Things began to change when Wik, an American soldier who I translated for, brought me up as a topic of conversation with Monica.
"Do you know him already?" he asked Monica, gesturing with his head at me.
"Yes, he's my friend," she answered simply. Then she offered her hand to shake mine. "You are my friend, aren't you?" I was just so self-conscious about the odd situation.
Then when Wik learned that Monica and her truck were free, he asked Lieutenant Cunningham's permission for all three of us to go to the 401st, where I was previously held, and retrieve my money and other belongings which were still there. With permission granted, Wik grabbed his M-16 and sat with me in the truck bed while Monica drove a winding and bumpy dirt road.
When we got to the 401st, I wanted to go with Wik, but he suggested that it might be better if I stayed in the truck. I was nervous about being left alone with Monica, especially when she stepped out and sat next to me on the truck bed. But then she began talking, openly and with no apparent awkwardness. It felt intoxicating. Here I was, alone with this lovely woman in this improbable place. Normally, this would have been a perfect opportunity to ask her out, which I know seems ridiculous. It was only Monica's matter-of-fact friendliness that kept the closeness from being overwhelming. It was there that I first began to realize that I was carrying feelings for this woman, for this soldier.
Monica's work as a truck driver kept her away from the compound most of the time. When she came, she would only be in the processing tent for a short time, but she always made sure to say hello. Sometimes, she would ask for more details about all that happened to me, the treatment I received at the Marines camp and joint interrogation facility. To me, the treatment didn't seem as atrocious as she felt it was. After all, I had been hoping to get captured by the Americans. It seemed the only alternative to certain death. My extended stay in the interrogation camp didn't bother me, so long as I remained in American custody.
I also told her about my flashbacks and nightmares. In my dreams, I would often see myself trapped again in Iraq, or that Saddam likes me and wants me to always be near him. So I had to pretend that I liked him too, or else face death.
While Monica listened to my stories, at one point I felt her hand gently rub my back. I was afraid to comment on it, so I just kept on going. "I don't know if I will ever be able to forget these things," I said.
"You probably never will forget them, but eventually they won't be so painful anymore." She paused for a moment, then changed the subject. "Do you have a girlfriend in Iraq?"
I was afraid to even hope that this might mean that she felt some special interest in me, so I give her an answer that stuck to the facts. The Iraqi society is more westernized than many Arab countries, but still most marriages are arranged. Couples have to date in secret with the intent to marry. I was attracted to a few girls, but I never made any advances.
"Why not?" she asked.
"I don't want to have a family. I never expected to survive the Iran-Iraq war, and if I did, I didn't want any ties to hinder my attempts in escaping Iraq and returning to America."
"Do you like children?" she asked.
"To tell you the truth, I usually don't give them any special attention, but they seem to like to play with me anyway. The same thing is true with dogs."
Monica smiled. "Children and dogs know a nice person when they see one."
On the surface, we appeared to have little in common. Monica was a waitress from the Midwest, a people person who joined the Army Reserve to help make ends meet. Her life was tough in many ways, with family crises and financial difficulty, yet simple in so many others, such as one would expect from a small-town life in a free country.
The stakes were very high, though. If we allowed our friendship to go any deeper and we were caught, Monica could be reprimanded. There was no telling how seriously. I could have easily been stripped from my special trustee status and transferred to the general population of Iraqi POWs. My interaction with the Americans would then diminish, and with it, all my hopes of returning to the United States would vanish.
But the more we tried to stay away from each other, the more our feelings grew. Up to now, I had always thought that love should start from the head and only later be allowed into the heart. I thought that logic had to prevail over irrational emotional impulses, or forces that might attract us into relationships too difficult to maintain. Romeo and Juliet, for example, should have known never to fall in love. But my theories were of little help when it came to Monica.
Although no one else had made any comments yet about our association together, I was sure that back at their camp, the guys had plenty to say. It was clear that people were noticing the attraction between us. Soon, I decided that I needed to use my head and limit this budding relationship with Monica. After all, she was one of my American captors. So I convinced myself that whatever time I spent with her should be no different than with the other female soldiers around the admin compound.
On the following day, Monica was mostly running errands somewhere outside the admin compound. During the few times that she was briefly present, I made it a point to walk away from the processing tent and not to return until her truck was gone.
Later in the afternoon I was sitting on a bench inside the processing tent, drawing on a sketchpad while waiting for another translation assignment. I was so intent on my drawing that I didn't notice that she had entered the processing tent until she sat next to me and simply asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to draw," I said. I didn't lift my eyes from the paper. Monica stood up and walked away.
For the rest of the day, she didn't come near me or even look my way. From that moment on, I didn't have to avoid her or pretend to go to the bathroom every time she entered the compound. She had taken the hint and was staying away from me. So much for what my head wanted.
But Monica was not the type who would leave things unsettled. Before she went home for the night, she asked me to sit with her in the truck. "Why were you avoiding me all day?" she asked.
The directness of her question stabbed at me. All I could say was, "Monica, you've been very kind to me. I just don't want to cause you any trouble. Your commanders could get all sorts of terrible ideas about this. They might think I'm trying to use you. I think, Monica, I think we should stop being friends."
She was quiet for a moment. "Listen, Shant. I know how to keep myself out of trouble. It's true that the guys have been talking about our friendship, but I also heard Sergeant Shepherd tell them that it was nobody's business what I do." She waited for me to respond. I was lost for words. I could barely look at her. My throat tightened. "The guys can talk all they want," she continued. "But I want to be your friend, Shant. I love you."
I held her hand and said, "I love you too, Monica." She kissed my hand and I kissed hers. And that simple gesture of affection was one of the most powerful emotional experiences that I had ever had.
She smiled and said, "You didn't expect to go to war and find yourself a girl, did you?"
"This is crazy," I said, and I don't doubt that she felt the same way.
"It's funny how everyone preaches that we should love our enemy," she replied. Then she changed the subject. We talked for nearly an hour. I kept telling myself to leave, without success.
A few days later, Monica asked me to help her carry some containers of liquid detergent into the supply tent. Once we were alone, she opened her arms and gave me a very long hug. I let my guard down and forgot that I was a POW for a moment. We didn't kiss. We just hugged. But the next day, she asked me into the supply tent again. She kissed me on the cheek, and I kissed her back.
It was not a passionate kiss. It couldn't have been. The processing tent, with everybody in it, was less than 15 feet away. Anyone could have walked in on us at any time. We decided that the risk was too great. Before anyone could notice that we were gone too long, we stepped back out.
"I wish that we were together," Monica said, "in civilian clothing, holding hands and walking down the streets of my hometown. People would see us but no one would care at all." Monica was wistful. She seemed a million miles away.
After I spent a month with the 403rd, the US army was beginning the transfer of POWs to Saudi camps. They were preparing to go back to America without me. At least, with fewer POWs in the camp, the workload was relaxed, and I found myself spending more time with Monica. By now, our friendship was widely known, but no one seemed to mind. We sat on the bench and played cards in the processing tent. I won, she cheated, I stopped her from cheating, and she called out to a nearby officer, "Sir. He cheats, sir."
The officer shook his head and muttered, "Just like my kids. Just like my kids."
Monica giggled and whispered in my ear, "He says everything twice."
"That's very unusual. That's very unusual," I replied.
Enclosure One closed down, and I was transferred to Enclosure Two, which was scheduled to close down 10 days later. On my second day there, Monica stopped visiting. When I saw her truck, a man was driving it. My heart was crushed. Monica's truck had been taken away, and she had no way to come and visit me again. Without her, my days were longer, and my POW wristband was heavier. I stood at the barbed wire boundaries of the admin compound. I stood watching for a long time, until I finally recognized Monica. She was too far away to notice me or hear my voice if I screamed. Although she had somehow lost possession of her truck, I was still hoping to be with her one more time. I stood like an animal in a cage, longing for his master.
I waited for her every day behind the barbed wire, until I gave up hope that I would ever see her again. I had four more days before my transfer, 100 miles north, deep into the Saudi desert. I was particularly anxious to see Monica, because she'd asked for my mother's phone number in Los Angeles and volunteered to call her for me. After three days of waiting miserably, I was sitting beside one of the lieutenants in the kitchen tent when Monica suddenly appeared and blurted, "I want to talk to Shant, sir. I called his mom in the United States, and I need to talk to him." The lieutenant gave us permission to go and talk.
Monica looked like she'd been crying for hours. She told me they took her truck to stop her from visiting me. "I feel helpless," she said. "I can't protect you anymore. They're going to transfer you to the Saudis in three days." She stopped talking and bowed her head, hiding her face from me.
I felt horrible, but all I wanted to do was reassure her. "Don't worry about me, Monica. I'll be fine." I took out three letters, handed them over to her, and said, "Here. I wrote you a letter for each day you didn't come."
She put the letters in her pocket, wiped her tears away, and started to tell me about my mother. She had given my mother the number to fax my proof of [? permanent ?] residency and other supporting documents I would need to be released. Monica and I talked for a long time. Seeing how upset she was, I tried not to talk about my imminent transfer to the Saudis and concentrate on the glimmer of hope that my documents would arrive and somehow save me. Monica looked up at me. "Whenever you make it to the States, make sure you call me." And with that, we both said our goodbyes for the night. I wonder now if we both knew we were lying a little.
Thanks to her help, and the help of a few other soldiers, I made it from Saudi Arabia to the United States just two weeks later. Monica came back from the Army two or three months after that. When I called her, she was cold. Then she said she was engaged. The guys from her unit told me later that after I left, she cried all the time. Then she met someone else.
In a way, we were doomed from the start. But all the hardest things in a relationship-- the fact that I was Iraqi and she was an American, the fact that our countries were at war and I was her enemy, that I was a prisoner and she was one of my guards-- we were able to overcome. What ended up dooming it in the end was the most ordinary thing of all. She couldn't wait for me.
We didn't have control over the war or the politics of our countries. We didn't have control over where we were born, where we came from or were going to. But the one thing that we had control over, being able to wait for each other, being patient, that's the thing that broke us up. She didn't love me enough for that.
Shant Kenderian, reading an excerpt from his book, 1001 Nights in Iraq: The Shocking Story of an American Forced to Fight for Saddam Against the Country That He Loves. The book will be out in June from Atria Books.
Shant is happily married. When he tried to describe his wife in an email, he said that she is truly a gift from God. They have two daughters.
Coming up, what if fate makes it so that you and your love don't have much to talk about? Are you doomed? Is that enough to doom you? David Sedaris weighs in. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
[MUSIC - "IT'S NOT UNUSUAL" BY WILLIE BOBO]
Act Two: The Diary Of Mrs. Sam Horrigan.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, for Valentine's Day, Star-crossed Love. And we've arrived at Act Two of our program.
Act Two, The Diary of Mrs. Sam Horrigan. Of course, there is no doomed love that ever seems quite as doomed as the doomed love that happens when you're in high school, Catalina Puente put together an account of doomed love in high school. She is a Radio Rookie at WNYC Radio in New York City. It's a program that trains teenagers how to make radio stories about their lives. A warning to listeners that although Catalina is a teenager, not everything in here might be appropriate for younger kids.
I've loved Sam Horrigan since I was 13. I'm 16 now. He's an actor. You probably don't know him. He pops up in sitcoms once in a while. He always plays some type of bully.
Hey, Betty Crockers.
But he's my favorite actor. He was in this movie, Brink. I watched it over and over and over. I could spend up to a whole day thinking about him, but normally it's about four hours or so. Every time I go to the internet, I look up things about him and go onto websites to see what girls have to say about Sam.
I'm writing back to a few stupid girls that write about Sam. I wrote to this girl, and she wrote, "When I was 14, I got really drunk at Sam Horrigan's apartment and made out with him. Whoa."
And then I wrote, "That is the most stupidest lie I have heard since the lie about, the world's going to end. And if it's true, I hope your tongue boils and burns into ashes. I am Sam's numero uno fan, OK? Now if I have to go all the way where you live to cut your head off for making such a big lie like that, I would."
Then some other girl wrote after me. And she wrote, "Dude, chill. No need to threaten anybody. Sam is cool but no need to get all freaky."
My schools are always crowded and loud. When I go up and down the stairs, I always bump into someone I know and say hi and bye. When I arrived at my high school as a freshman, a year and a half ago, I had no idea what was waiting for me there. I was going down the stairs when someone was coming up, and I got such a surprise because that person looked just like Sam. The eyebrows, white skin, black hair, same nose, eyes, lips, and the same strong jaw. That was what scared me the most. I went, "Oh, my God." But it wasn't Sam. It was just a regular student. It wasn't even a boy.
At the beginning, it just started with the feeling of how shocked I was that she looked like Sam. I guess I was too shocked to think I liked her. Before I knew her name, I'd think about her at home, calling her the Sam Girl. Later on, I found out her real name, but I'm only going to use the nickname that I gave her, which is K-licious, like the gum, Bubblicious. Now I have the letter K on my right thigh. I made it by rubbing my skin off with a toothpick. My older sister Maria thought what I did was crazy. My sister's 23, like Sam. The three most important people in my life are my sister, Sam, and God. My sister was the main witness to my obsession.
It's plain to me how I used to be obsessed with this girl.
Oh, my God. Everything would remind you of her. Even if it had nothing to do with her, you would find something, and then say, "Oh, look. She wears this color. Or look, she was wearing these boots." It's ridiculous, ha ha, your friend gave you a gum. She gave you a gum that belonged to her, and you still have it. You have it there. And, "Oh, my God. What's that smell? What was that smell? That was her perfume. I know it. I know. I'm going to buy it. I'm going to buy it."
She was the first girl I had different feelings for. Like, strong love feelings. When I heard any love song, especially "My Immortal" by Evanescence, I'd think about her. That song makes me so sad. It reminds me of the things we could have done if we were together.
[MUSIC - "MY IMMORTAL" BY EVANESCENCE]
I'd just imagine the lights off, us in the bed, nose to nose, fingertips to fingertips, not saying a word except some "I love you's," playing with each other's hair, breathing each other's body scent. We're both happy.
[MUSIC - "MY IMMORTAL" BY EVANESCENCE]
I wanted to marry the darn girl. I wanted to live with her. I wanted to spend the rest of my sorry life with her. I wanted to die with her. I wanted to be in heaven with her. Until K-licious, the only crushes I had for women were women on TV. I came out to my parents over her. My mom said she didn't care, that she still loved me. I only told my dad when I was asking my family about my obsession. I was scared that'd he'd see me differently, be disgusted or end the conversation. The day after I told him, we talked about it again.
Something that I told you, that was important. What was that?
Yes. That you used to like boys and girls.
Yeah, and now.
And now, too. And you asked me how I felt about it. And I said that it happens to a lot of people.
And how do you feel, that I told you that? Do you feel different than last night?
I feel good, happy because you have trust in me, to tell your dad everything. And I am happy with you.
It's easier to show your feelings to a boy, because that's how society is, for a guy and a girl to be together. I mean, a guy can't freak out when a girl tells you she likes you. I heard a rumor that some girl found out that I liked her and was going to curse me out in front of the whole school. I assumed K-licious saw the desk that I wrote her name on. I wrote that she was hot, and I thought she figured out about me crushing on her. I was scared and talked to a school counselor, who arranged a meeting with the two of us. I was so terrified, I thought I was going to pee in my pants.
She came in, and I asked her if she heard anything bad about me. She looked clueless, and also beautiful. After a few seconds, she said, "No, but if I did, I wouldn't remember. I don't believe in 'he-said, she-said' rumors." Then I said, "Good, but if you hear anything bad about me, it's not true."
When I talked to her, my heart beat fast, like, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom. The obsession was like a second person. It felt like I was responsible for two people, my regular self and my obsessive self. In my house, I was unhappy most of the time. The depression was a new feeling. I was sad for myself that I felt this way over a girl who didn't even notice me. I would pray to God almost every night, telling him to send me a sign, that if I wasn't going to get with her, to make me stop liking her, but if I was, to let me keep going. My sister was getting annoyed.
After I figured out that y'all were never going to get together, and this was going nowhere, I just wanted you to shut up about her, and to move on and leave her alone, because you guys were never going to be together.
I started losing concentration in school, even though K-licious and I had no classes together. My report cards were disgusting. The feelings were so strong, they started to hurt. I used to cry in the bathroom because it was the only door with a lock.
I remember those mean days.
I wrote poems and haikus to clear out my mind.
I feel like I'm trapped. Trapped as the walls surround me. I want to get out.
Maria told me, "Don't tell me anything if you don't got her number or have not done anything with her." So what I used to do was, while I was in school, I used to think of a good lie to tell my sister, so that she could be interested in my talking about K-licious, because I had no one else to express myself to.
Almost every day, I would come home with a story. I felt scared to tell Maria about the lies, because she might lose trust in me. I decided to confess.
Do you remember when I used to come from school and I used to tell you stuff, like what happened to me today?
Can you tell me one of the stories that you remember?
"Oh, today, guess what happened to me? I don't have my ID."
I told Maria that K-licious stole my high school ID.
"And she said, oh, if you want it back, you'd better come to school, because you never come to school, so I can't wait to go back tomorrow. She's going to give me back my ID. Oh, my God, she's holding it. She put it in her back butt pocket. Oh, my God. When she gives it back to me, it's going to be from her pocket. Oh, my God."
We're the stupidest sisters in the world.
Are you in a good mood?
I just want to know.
I'm always in a good mood.
I need to tell you something.
What you did?
Something I need to confess to you.
You have another story.
No. Like half of them that I said--
How you came up with that?
I don't know.
Because you started saying, "I don't want to hear if it's nothing good." So that's why. I had nobody else to express myself to. So I used to lie, if I could talk to you.
You're an idiot. Oh, that's sick, girl.
Why would you do something like that? I'm not mad, but I'm just saying, that's so weird. Why you did that? You didn't have to.
I was surprised Maria didn't think it was such a big deal. I think why she didn't get mad with my confession was because she probably thought it was more stupid.
Every time we had a school break, I'd think about how to slow down my obsession. Winter break was so depressing because I didn't see her, but then I started thinking about her less. But when I got back to school, it all fell on top of me again. Finally, the summer came, and there was a rumor that she might move, so I might never see her again. I decided to end the obsession.
I felt like an old lady whose husband just died after 50 years together. I tried not thinking about her, and I punished myself a little by not giving myself pleasure, like listening to songs and reading things that would remind me of her. Sam helped me a lot, too. I would watch Sam all the time. I kept watching the episode of the sitcom, Still Standing, that Sam starred in.
"Because he's a butler, dude. He does anything we tell him to. He's our designated driver, he goes on burger runs, he does our homework."
Babysits my son.
Even though K-licious looks like him, it was a whole different kind of love than what I had for Sam. Plus, it started with her because I know I'm not going to get with Sam. I miss K-licious, but by the end of the summer, my obsession was leaving.
On the bus on the first day back, I was nervous that if she was there, I might fall in love with her again. When I got to school, I saw her, but I didn't react like I thought I would. I have classes with her now, unlike before when I just wished I did.
I'd get uptight for the first 10 minutes, but then I'd just relax and forget that she's in the class. If that was me last year, I don't know what I would do. I know I wouldn't be relaxed.
Maria asked me if I was completely over K-licious. I stood speechless for a while. I wanted to say that the obsession was gone, but decided to answer as honest as I could, because I didn't want Maria to doubt what I was saying. I have to admit that I am 99% over her. But there's 1% that I still, I don't know.
It's scary, because I don't want to think about her, but sometimes I just do. I still like K-licious, but not so, so in love. I have a piece of love in my heart, that my heart won't let me erase. Until I have a real relationship, maybe I'm not going to be completely over her.
For This American Life, this is Catalina Puente, aka Mrs. Sam Horrigan.
[MUSIC - "MY IMMORTAL" BY EVANESCENCE]
Catalina Puente in New York with WNYC's Radio Rookies, whose story was produced by Serena Patel with assistance from Miguel Macias, Wayne Schulmister, and Karen Michel. Other stories by Radio Rookies at www.radiorookies.org. Catalina's story was supported by Con Edison, the Fred L. Emerson Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Open Society Institute's Youth Initiatives program, the Helena Rubinstein Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the New York Times Company Foundation, and Time Warner.
Act Three: So A Squirrel And A Chipmunk Walk Into A Bar
Act Three. So a Squirrel and a Chipmunk Walk Into a Bar. We end our program today with this fable of doomed love from David Sedaris.
The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about. Acorns, parasites, the inevitable approach of autumn, these subjects had been covered within their first hour. And so, breathlessly, their faces had flushed. Twice they had held long conversations about dogs, each declaring their across-the-board hatred of them, and speculating on what life might be like were someone to put a bowl of food in front of them two times a day.
"They're spoiled rotten, is what it comes down to," the chipmunk had said.
And the squirrel had placed his paw over hers, saying, "That's it, exactly. Finally, someone who really gets it."
Friends had warned them that their romance could not possibly work out. And such moments convinced them that these naysayers were not just wrong, but jealous. "They'll never have what we do," the squirrel would say. And then the two of them would sit quietly, hoping for a flash flood or a rifle report, something, anything that might generate a conversation.
They were out one night at a little bar run by a couple of owls when, following a long silence, the squirrel slapped his palm against the table top. "You know what I like?" he said. "I like jazz."
"I didn't know that," the chipmunk said. "My goodness. Jazz." She had no idea what jazz was, but worried that asking would make her sound stupid and unworthy of his affections. "What kind, exactly?" she asked, hoping his answer might narrow things down a bit.
"Well, all kinds really," he told her, "especially the earlier stuff."
"Me too," she said. And when he asked her why, she told him that the later stuff was just a little too late for her tastes, almost like it was overripe or something, you know what I mean? And for the third time since she had known him, the squirrel reached across the table and took her paw.
On returning home that evening, the chipmunk woke her older sister, with whom she shared a room. "Listen," she whispered. "I need you to explain something. What's jazz?"
"Why are you asking me?" the sister said.
"So you don't know either?" the chipmunk asked.
"I didn't say I didn't know," the sister said. "I asked you why you're asking. Does this have anything to do with that squirrel?"
"Maybe," the chipmunk said.
"Well, I'm telling," the sister announced. "First thing tomorrow morning, because this has gone on long enough." She punched at her pillow of moss, then repositioned it beneath their head. "I warned you weeks ago that this wouldn't work out. And now you've got the whole house in an uproar, waltzing home in the middle of the night, waking me up with your dirty little secrets. Jazz indeed. You just wait until Mother hears about this."
The chipmunk lay awake that night, imagining the unpleasantness that was bound to take place the following morning. What if jazz was squirrel slang for something terrible, like anal intercourse? "Oh, I like it too," she'd said, and so eagerly. Then again, it could just be mildly terrible, something along the lines of Communism or fortune-telling, subjects that were talked about but hardly ever practiced. Just as she thought she'd calmed herself down, a new possibility would enter her mind, each one more terrible than the last.
Jazz was a maggot-infested flesh of a dead body. The ochre crust on an infected eye. Another word for ritual suicide. And she had claimed to like it.
Years later, when she could put it all in perspective, she'd realized that she'd never really trusted the squirrel. How else to explain all those terrible possibilities? Had he been another chipmunk, even a tough one, she'd have assumed that jazz was something familiar, a kind of root, say, or maybe a hairstyle. Of course, her sister hadn't helped any. None of her family had.
"It's not that I have anything against squirrels, per se," her mother had said. "It's just that this one-- well, I don't like him." When pressed for details, she'd mentioned his fingernails, which were a little too long for her tastes. "A sure sign of vanity," she warned. "And then there's this jazz business."
That was what did it. Following a sleepless night, the chipmunk's mother had forced her to break it off.
"Well, the squirrel had sighed. "I guess that's that."
"I guess it is," the chipmunk said. He headed downriver a few days later, and she never saw him or spoke to him again.
"It's no great loss," her sister said. "No girl should be subjected to language like that, especially from the likes of him."
"Amen," her mother added.
Eventually, the chipmunk met someone else, and after she had safely married, her mother speculated that perhaps Jazz was a branch of medicine, something like chiropractic therapy that wasn't quite legitimate. Her sister said, no. It was more likely a jig. And then she pushed herself back from the table and kicked her chubby legs into the air.
"Oh, you," her mother said. "That's a can-can." And then she joined in and gave a few kicks of her own. This stuck in the squirrel's mind, for she never knew her mother could identify a dance step, or anything associated with fun.
It was the way her own children would eventually think of her: dull, strict, chained to the past. She had boys, all of them healthy and only one prone to trouble. He had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but his heart was good, and the chipmunk knew he would eventually straighten himself out. Her husband thought so too, and died knowing that he had been correct. A month or two after he'd passed on, she asked this son what Jazz was, and when he told her it was a kind of music, she knew immediately that he was telling the truth.
"Is it bad music?" she asked.
"Well, if it's played badly," he said. "Otherwise, it's really quite pleasant."
"Did squirrels invent it?"
"God, no," he said. "Whoever gave you that idea?"
The chipmunk stroked her brown and white muzzle. "Nobody," she said. "I was just guessing."
When her muzzle grew more white than brown, the chipmunk forgot that she and the squirrel had had nothing to talk about. She forgot the definition of Jazz as well, and came to think of it as every beautiful thing she had ever failed to appreciate: the taste of warm rain, the smell of a baby, the din of a swollen river rushing past her tree and onward to infinity.
David Sedaris' most recent book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. He's also the editor of an anthology of favorite short stories called Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.
Our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Sam Hallgren, Thea Chaloner, Seth Lind, and Tommy Andres. Music help from Jessica Hopper.
Our website, where you can sign up for our free, our absolutely free weekly podcast, or listen to all of our old shows by audio streaming, www.thisamericanlife.org. Or for the podcast, you can go to the iTunes store.
This week on the website, there's information about our upcoming six-city national tour. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program provided by Mr. Torey Malatia, who does not understand why we have so many women on our staff.
Do they do the same work as men?
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories on This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.