SO HERE I AM, sitting on the couch watching Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous with my husband and my 16-year-old son, Max, when my husband suddenly says, “Hey, Max, did you know your mother was almost cool?” Max looks at me with vague interest. I know he’s thinking that surely I could never have been cool. “She hitchhiked–something you should never do, by the way–and got picked up the Beach Boys,” Jeff said. “And they invited her to a party.”
Max sits up and turns to me. “For real?” he says.
It happened a million years ago (yes, you can probably figure out my age on Google, and no, I am not going to tell you here), when I was attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, transferred from Brandeis because of an unhappy love affair, and about to to soon transfer again to Ann Arbor because of an even more unhappy love affair with a guy I’ll call Paul. Paul and I had become fast friends the day we spotted each other, he wearing a top hat and a vest, me in a yellow halter top and a mini made from a pair of denim shorts. For months, we spent every day together, talking for hours, roaming Madison, seeing movies, and the more we hung out, the deeper in love I tumbled. But because he had a serious girlfriend Ellie back in Massachusetts, and because I was unsure what I meant to him, I couldn’t tell him what my true feelings were. Not until one night, when, along with my roommate Sue, we decided to go see the Beach Boys in concert, and then everything happened at once.
Of course, we got stoned before we went. Of course there was more drama–a friend George had overdosed on drugs and was having his stomach pumped out at the local hospital, but we weren’t allowed to go the hospital because we were considered a bad influence and because we weren’t family. We were all worried and tense, and being stoned heightened all my emotions, including being so drawn to Paul, so drowning in love, that I felt if I didn’t kiss him, I would die. Halfway during the concert, we left our seats and sat on the floor closer to the stage, and then I leaned against Paul, and he put his arm around me and I lurched clumsily towards him and kissed him hard on the mouth.
And he kissed me back.
“We can’t do this,” I said and wrapped my arms about him. “You have a girlfriend.”
“This is so wrong,” Paul said and slid his hand up the back of my shirt.
I don’t remember the concert, except as a backdrop to our kissing. The only way I even knew it was over was when Sue tapped me on the shoulder. “Wasn’t it great?” she said. Her face was shining. I looked over at Paul.
“It was amazing,” I said.
After making our way through the crowd, we stood on the shoulder of the highway, thumbs out, trying to hitch a ride back to campus. “We should go see George,” Sue said. “Make sure he’s okay. Maybe we can lie and say we’re family and they’ll let us see him.”
“We should,” Paul said, but he was looking at me when he said it.
A big, white station wagon slowed and we ran towards it, and then it sped up again. “Ha, ha, really funny, moron,’” Sue shouted. And then the white car stopped again, and we ran, faster this time, running to catch up.
We piled into the car, in the third row of seats, before they could kick us out, our heads lowered, determined. I squeezed as close to Paul as I could.
“Hey, hey,” the driver said, and I looked over at Sue, who was staring. Then I looked in the front seat, and the second row of seats, and I was staring, too.
We were in the car with the Beach Boys, all of them in white suits. Carl Wilson was driving and he turned around to smile at us.
“Didja like the show? ” he said casually, and then he started singing Good Vibrations and Sue’s mouth dropped open. Al Jardine turned around and harmonized for a bar or two, then he socked Carl in the shoulder.
“What didja like the best?” Mike Love said. “Which ones of us was the best?” He winked.
I was still stoned on grass and on love and everything felt surreal. I could hear Sue talking to the band, laughing, asking questions, and they were turning around and joking and flirting with her, while I kept feeling an electric current moving from Paul to me.
They swerved to a corner by the university, and the band members got out and Mike Love got out, too, and then he looked Sue up and down as if she were a piece of cake he had to have. “You guys want to come to a party with us?” he said. “Going to be fun. I promise you. Big fun.”
I swear there were sparklers shooting out of Sue’s head. She looked from Paul to me, her smile widening. “A party?” she asked. “You guys want us to go to a party with you?”
God help me, I was thinking about George overdosing, and whether Paul loved me. I was lost in a haze of dope. I stepped back. I shook my head. “No,” I said.
“What? you don’t?” said Mike. “Are you sure?” He gave Sue that look again. “What about you?” he said to Sue, and she hesitated.
“If you want to go, go,” I told her. I felt Paul standing silently beside me. I moved closer so our bodies were touching, and a pulse of heat ran through me.
“Maybe not,” she said.
“No problemo.” Mike was friendly. He waved. Then one of the most famous bands in the world got into their car and drove away and as soon as the car was out of sight, Sue began to shake. “What’s the matter with you?” she said, furious. “Why did you say no?”
“Why did you?” I shot back. “You could have gone by yourself.” She shook her head. “No, I couldn’t. It would have felt weird. You ruined everything, Caroline.”
“We’re not attached at the ribs!” I said.
She stormed off to the dorm.
Paul and I stood on the sidewalk, and then we started walking towards his dorm room, not speaking, and a block away, he took my hand, curling his fingers over mine. My heart thundered in my chest. I thought about the Beach Boys and the friend who was in the hospital, and I knew they should matter but at that moment, all that mattered was Paul. He opened his door and there was his bed. And then he turned to me. “I have to call Ellie and tell her,” he said, and I couldn’t breathe.
“You have to call her now?”
“I do. I really do. I have to make it right. Can you wait outside? Do you mind?”
I remember waiting. More than I remember the white suits the Beach Boys were wearing, more than the way Mike Love devoured Sue with his eyes. I remember how I rested my head against Paul’s door, trying to listen, wondering what he was telling Ellie, wondering if she’d hate me. I heard bits of his conversation: Yes. I know. I’m sorry. And then I heard him say, Me, too. I took my ear away and put my hand on the side of the door, as if the wood were a beating heart and I could absorb its rhythm.
When the door opened, Paul wouldn’t look at me. “She asked me if I was sure,” he said.
He started to shiver.
“I was shaking the whole time I talked to her.” He touched my face and then withdrew his hand. “I think I still love her.” He swallowed. “I know I do.”
I turned around and I left his dorm, and he didn’t stop me. He didn’t follow me. I walked through Madison, all the way to the hospital, and when I got inside I lied, and I said I was George’s sister and I had to see him. I must have looked so distraught that they believed me.
As soon as I saw George, laying in bed, I burst into tears. I sat beside him and took his hand. He said they had made him swallow a tube, that four nurses had struggled to hold him down, and that he had overdosed on purpose because the boy he was in love with had left him and he couldn’t imagine a world without that boy in it. “Can you understand that?” he said and I nodded.
“What are we going to do, George?” I said.
“Not this again,” he said. “That’s all I know. Not this.”
Then to cheer him, I told him about the Beach Boys picking us up, how I had been so dizzy with love and so worried about him, that it hadn’t hit me that I was really in the car with them, and then, as soon as I said it, my hands began to tremble. “What have I done?” I said out loud, “What kind of idiot am I?”
“They probably thought you were cool,” George said. “Being blasé, playing hard to get.” He laughed, and I thought, George is going to be all right.
Two days later George was released from the hospital, Paul went to Massachusetts to see Ellie, and Sue forgave me, but shortly after that I transferred to Ann Arbor to forget Paul.
I finish telling this whole story to my son, and he shakes his head. “Mom, you weren’t almost cool, you were lame,” he says.
I don’t mind his saying that, because he’s right. I should have walked into Paul’s room, yanked the phone out of the wall and kissed him onto the bed. When the Beach Boys asked, “Do you want to come to a party?” I should have said, “Yes, but only if we stop and get wine first.” I regret both those decisions, those missed chances, because they became a story I would later tell, but they weren’t the story that I wished that I had really dared to live.