Sunday, September 2, 2007

Clueless in Philadelphia

When you're thinking backwards in time to write a memoir, it's amazing some of the stuff you remember. And some of the insights you get from that proverbial 20/20 hindsight can be downright shocking.

Here's one I'll file under the forehead-slapping, "My God, I was such an idiot!" category.

When I was in my early 20s, I was living with my parents in a neighborhood in Philadelphia where Tudor-style mansions, early 19th century farmhouses and a long-abandoned, foreboding red stone insane asylum stood like awkward stepchildren among cardboard condo developments and strip malls.

I didn't know too many of my neighbors, aside from the cop across the street whose kids I'd occasionally babysit, but begrudgingly, because they liked to sit on my lap and twist my nose.

But my mother knew people. She even knew the people with that house on Worthington Road with the farm animals in the yard. We used to slow down when we drove past and admire the horse standing by the fence, tail swinging. It was the only house on the block with some decent land around it. Everyone else lived in identical white suburban boxes on tiny spits of grass. But the house with the animals – that was neat. A true neighborhood novelty.

I guess maybe my mother knew the married couple who lived there, and somehow she got us both invited to meet with one of their sons, Paul, and his friend, Jack, who were planning to write a children's TV pilot. They were looking to form some sort of think tank, and I guess my mom and I got enrolled through word-of-mouth and our reps for being "those creative Brittinghams".

We walked into the living room of Jack's cardboard condo and there stood one of the most handsome men I've ever met in person in all my 36 years: Paul Cartin. Wow. Tall, lanky, with capable-looking hands, the jaw line and cheekbones of an Adonis, the kind of beautiful deep auburn hair that women around the world spend thousands of dollars in salon fees to achieve, and intense brown eyes I would've pledged myself to like a religion, given the chance. And the weird thing is, right from the start, I sensed he had no idea how handsome he was. (Ladies, how rare is that, I ask you?)

As for me, I felt and looked frumpy. My sister had recently developed some pictures and showed me an unflattering shot of myself, remarking, "You know, I don't know what happened to you, Kim. You used to wear the coolest clothes and you always looked good. You wore make-up and always styled your hair really cute. You look all grungy now, like you just don't care anymore. I miss the way you used to be."

We were in crisis at home, and I wore my palpitating heart literally on my grungy sleeves. We didn't have heat or hot water in our house, even food was scarce, and rats overran the lopsided and sinking 1800s former general store that we called home. I hated my job and felt anxious all the time. I guess my exterior reflected my interior.

But what my sister said really resonated with me and made me uneasy – enough to go to Lane Bryant and put some wages into a long, beatniky black sweater and matching sweater pants. Still frumpy, but crossing a toe over the line into darkly hip – and it was the nicest thing I then owned. I wore it to our first meeting with Paul and Jack.

I liked Paul Cartin. I liked his creativity and his unassuming manner. I liked the effortless rapport we had when we brainstormed ideas for the TV pilot. And he looked all the more perfect in constant contrast to Jack, whom I didn't like from the start. Loud, obnoxious. Reminded me of a future sleazeball movie exec, or someone who'd produce porn. And he worked as a bill collector. *Shiver.* I always wanted to ask Paul, "What's a nice guy like you doing with a guy like…that?"

I remember wanting to sit someplace with Paul, alone, without Jack, and get to know everything about him. I wanted to know what it was like to be kissed by his mouth, to have those handy-looking hands pressing into my waist. I wanted to swap stories with him; I wanted swap spit with him. I wanted to talk about ideas with him, contemplate the universe. I wanted to touch his hair and run my hand along that heartbreakingly perfect jaw. I wanted to know what it was like to pick up the phone and hear his voice say, "Kim? It's me."

I remember showing up one night to one of our creative meetings and being introduced to Jack's girlfriend. She wasn't the type of woman I'd naturally befriend, because a) she chose to be with Jack, and in my mind that lowered her respectability, and b) she just seemed kind of dopey. Nevertheless, when she asked me to ride to the store with her to buy snacks and beverages, I went along to be polite.

I remember feeling a little edgy because I'd had to listen to Jack being jerky for a half hour already and struggled to hold my tongue for peace-keeping's sake. So as his girlfriend and I walked out the door and Jack called, "Now that they're leaving, we can talk about them!" I didn't turn around and make some sort of cute face as he might have expected. I purposely didn't give him what he wanted. I didn't react. Well, except for closing the door behind me perhaps a little more firmly than usual.

In the car, Jack's girlfriend launched into a speech about how lonely Paul was. Out of the blue, unprovoked. I hadn't asked.

"He doesn't have a girlfriend right now, so I think he's a little lonely. He really needs someone to take care of him. I try to be extra-nice to him when he's over because I know he doesn't have anyone. But he really needs a girl of his own to take care of him."

While I was secretly happy to hear that Paul was unattached, I was a little freaked out by his need to be "taken care of". The clueless 22-year-old me automatically assumed there must be something terribly wrong with him if he needed a woman as babysitter and/or mother. It never once occurred to me that this whole "caretaker" spin was the creation of Jack's submissive, "whatever you say, honey" girlfriend and potentially had nothing to do with Paul.

I didn't say much to her – just some "uh-huh"s and "oh"s, listening courteously. And I certainly didn't bounce up and down in the car seat, twist around to face her and declare, "Oh! Oh! I'll take care of him!", because I also assumed this information about Paul's singlehood was most likely being offered up as mere small talk, because, naturally, he would never, ever be interested in me -- a dowdy, chubby, frizzy-haired dork with her fashionable glory days behind her, apparently, or so said my sister.

On a different night, Paul gave me a ride home. When we got to my house, he let out an exasperated sigh.

"I don't know what to do with myself," he said, looking at the road ahead.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know, I feel like I…like I don't want to go home right away, you know?"

He shifted a little impatiently in his seat and repeated, he just didn't know what to do with himself.

And Dumb-Ass – that is, yours truly, with palm already curled around the passenger door handle -- shrugged and said:

"Well, I'm sure you'll find something to do." I pushed open the door. "Thanks again for the ride. Goodnight!"

Then I disappeared into the house and wearily climbed the stairs to my bedroom, where I popped a VHS tape of a Molly Ringwald movie into the player and thought, "Damn. I wish Paul Cartin wanted to date me."

Don't you just want to go back in time and smack me???? I know I do.

My confidence in Paul's apathy towards me was confirmed in four ways. Note the jackass logic forthcoming.

Way Number One. I once decided to plant a little seed that might, just might, bring Paul and I closer to a potential dating scenario, by putting us in a situation together sans Jack. I asked him:

"Hey! Can I come over to your house sometime and visit your animals?"

I received a disappointing reply.

"Uh…I guess so."

He shrugged and sort of said it like, Well, I'd tolerate your presence, but as soon as you get your petting zoo fix, I expect you to get lost. And I also thought I detected a hint of, What kind of totally uncool nerd are you that you want to visit my animals? No, I decided. He definitely did not like me. Of course. And why would he?

Way Number Two. One night Paul and I were working on a model of a potential claymation segment for the TV pilot in Jack's basement. Some friend of Jack's – another loudmouth – came down to the basement and started making insincere hits on me, you know, like when a guy just wants to look like Casanova in front of his friends. "Well hel-lo there! Tell me, what are you doing Saturday night?" Secretly I wanted Paul to stand up to him and say, "Cut it out, Bill," or better still, "She's going out with me Saturday night. So back off."

Yes, I was hoping for some expression of jealousy on Paul's part. I don't know why I bothered to hope, but I did.

He said nothing. : (

The one happy thing I took away from the situation was the thought that, Hey, maybe if it looks like other men could be interested in me, Paul will begin to see me in a different light, i.e., attractive!

Way Number Three. One afternoon while sitting in cozy proximity to Paul in Jack's kitchen, sketching out ideas or maybe experimenting in clay, I began to feel that deliciously natural rapport blossoming between us. It had room to grow because Jack and his mouth were on the other side of the room, on the phone. Paul and I spoke in semi-hushed tones, engaging one another in such lovely, happy harmony – but the second Jack got off the phone, he came over to the table and like a foghorn blurted:

"All right, break it up break it up! This is supposed to be a work session here."

I assumed Jack knew something I didn't. Like maybe Paul had suddenly gained a girlfriend and this friendly chat between us was taboo. Or, perhaps Jack was doing Paul another kind of favor – saving him from the ugly girl who was getting too friendly. Bailing him out, as it were. Of course he'd want to be bailed out, I thought. Why do I bother fantasizing about what isn't really there?

And, finally, Way Number Four. At some point Paul and I were having a conversation about our creative interests, and he mentioned he was attempting to write some songs with a friend.

"She has a keyboard, so she's writing the music and I'm working on the lyrics."

Well, I thought, that takes care of that. He's writing love ballads with another chick. He's madly, swooningly in love with a musician. Of course. No point wishing on any stars with this guy. We're done here.

And so, that's how my imaginary love affair with Paul Cartin ended. The TV pilot project was dropped and we never saw each other again. I just assumed he trotted off into the sunset with his pianist. (Bitch.)

And here I sit fourteen years later, slack-jawed, realizing, Oh my God! The guy was interested in me all along! Or at least until I frustrated the hell out of him and had him convinced I didn't care one wit about him. Poor guy. Poor me! No – make that stupid, stoooo-pid me.

How many clues did I need? Jack's girlfriend took me out on a snack run just to get me alone and deliver the You Should Be Paul's Girlfriend Sales Pitch. Of course, her pitch needed a little work, but nevertheless, her heart was in the right place. I was just too dumb to figure it out. Dumb, and completely lacking in any self-confidence.

And how about sitting side-by-side in the front seat of his car at 9:00 at night, beneath the shadow of my family's house: "I just don't know what to do with myself…I don't want to go home right away." Geeeeeee. Ya think he might've been hoping I'd say, "Well why don't we go grab a bite to eat, or get some coffee?" You know, I needed to be hit over the head and just dragged off. IDIOT!!!! And there I was in my room daydreaming about him night and day. God! How STUPID!!!

And I'm sure he was thrilled when I asked to come visit…his animals! I can almost hear him thinking, And what am I? Pond scum?

The happy ending to this story is that I'm not nearly as insecure as I was at 22. Not by a long shot. I know I have good things to offer my fellow beings. I believe I am likeable. I know I can't be likeable to everyone, and that's A-OK with me. But my default position is no longer, "Of course I'm not wanted!"

The less-than-perfect part of this happy ending is that I still retain some of my self-doubt. Even as I write this, a little voice in my head is whispering, What if Paul Cartin googles himself and finds this blog and writes to you and says, Yo. Brittingham. I was NOT interested in you, I was NOT hinting that we should go out when we were in my car. Keep dreaming, you egomaniacal witch! How totally embarrassing that would be. Maybe you should keep this story to yourself.

But a second voice is saying, Don't listen to her! See where your insecurities have gotten you before? This is a charming story that a lot of people can relate to. I'm sure even Paul Cartin himself would be nothing but flattered if he read it. You have nothing to fear. And stop calling yourself an idiot.

So I'm sticking with the latter voice. It feels truer. But that bit about not calling myself an idiot? Nah. Can't let myself off the hook there.

Idiot. Idiot! IDIOT!!!!