Uncle Greg, a Giant Chicken, and the Murderous Pottery Wheel
(Excerpted from CRUSH: 26 REAL LIFE TALES OF FIRST LOVE edited by Andrea Richesin)
Uncle Greg was my first crush, of my first semester, of my first year of college. Before you think I’m some inbred hick, let me set the record straight, I might be from a teeny farm town in the middle of Indiana, but Greg was not related to me by blood. Nope. In my mind, he was sent to me by those whimsical gods of love who have nothing better to do than muck with a freshman’s head. Now, two decades later, I’m about to track him down again.
I’d first seen him through the large plexiglass cereal dispensers in the dorm cafeteria. Was it the slight curls of his shaggy brown hair or those piercing eyes or the confident, maybe even cocky, way he loped around with his tray in one hand? Or maybe that he seemed infinitely more interesting than the farm boys I grew up with and I wanted something different than football, cars, and beer bongs in my next boyfriend.
Today in the cyberworld, I don’t have to inhabit the same physical space as he does to see him again. This time, I turn to the internet. First I Google him, which turns up a professional photo (same eyes, same sort of cocky disposition, still cute) but my search doesn’t render an email address so I do what any twenty-first century gal would do: I Facebook him.
Where was Facebook when I was in college? It would have been a handy shortcut. Back then dorky girls like me had to do reconnaissance for one another and through my friends, I learned that Greg was a journalism major, wrote for the school newspaper, and took French. Obviously, we were meant for one another because the point would not be the common ground between us. It would be all the new things we could bring to one another. If only I could find a way to do more than squeak, “Um hi,” and scurry away like a spastic chipmunk whenever I passed him on the quad.
Today, I have the luxury of a keyboard and time delay to craft my message to Greg, but as I get up my gumption to “talk” to him, many of the feelings are the same as when I was eighteen. Am I being weird? Will he think I’m a freak? Will he know who I am? I call my friend Emily and we giggle like tweens while parsing every word of my message, which reminds me of being in middle school and writing notes on lined paper to boys. Which is ridiculous because I’m forty years old, happily married, and have no interest in this person other than to get his side of the story about an ill-fated date in college. And yet, I remain a dorky girl at heart who’s afraid I’ll embarrass myself (again) after all these years.
In the email, I reintroduce myself and explain that that we went to college together. Then I tell him that I’m writing an essay about crushes and he’s my subject. Like usual, I go on for too long (in real-time conversation this is known as nervous babbling). I over-explain things, add disclaimers and justifications (and use far too many parentheses) while generally talking myself into circles, then at the end, I ask him to please contact me. And I wait.
Back in my college dorm, while I was waiting around, trying to figure out a way to approach him, providence struck. The guys in our dorm had a fund raiser. For what, I have no idea. Homeless puppies? Legless orphans? A big fat kegger? Who knew, but that wasn’t the point. For a mere five dollars you could buy a bed-time story and two guys would come to your dorm room to tuck you in. My room mate and I quickly ponied up our fiver?
The night of our tucking in rolled around and Jill and I spent as much time primping as we did getting ready for class in the morning. With our hair in appropriately messy ponytails and in our cutest PJs, we were ready for the 9:00 pm knock at the door. But nothing could have prepared me for my crush to walk into our room.
“Hey there,” my crush said, one hand in his faded jeans pocket, the other holding a sheaf of loose-leaf paper. “I’m Uncle Greg and this is Uncle Todd and we’re here to tuck you in.” Then, they both doubled over in that I-just-smoked-a-giganto-bong kind of laugh where absolutely everything, especially whatever you happen to be doing, is hilarious. Including reading a nonsense story they’d scribbled down while they were toking it up fifteen minutes earlier.
Oh, but it didn’t matter! He was there, in my room and he was delicious. Even cuter close up than I had thought. And what a great laugh he had! Plus, he clearly knew how to have fun. So what if I never did drugs or drank, I could be the designated driver.
A few days later, on the way to the cafeteria, I saw him. The conversation went something like this:
Me (all moony-eyed and swooning while feigning casual self-confidence): “Oh hey, Uncle Greg.”
Him: Look of bewilderment as to why I could call him Uncle.
Me (slightly flustered but pushing forward anyhow): “You, um, read me and my room mate a bedtime story the other night?” My voice crept up and up until it was more like a question.
Him (look of vague recognition): “Oh yeah, right, I was really baked that night.”
And then what? All I could do was give him a meek half wave and scurry off once again as if I had to quickly hide an acorn in some underground burrow. Oh, but it hurt, because to him, coming to my dorm room had been a lark, while to me it had been divine intervention. How unfair is the language we use for infatuation! The crushee has no idea how high upon a pedestal he sits, while the crusher is the one pinned beneath the weight of her feelings. Since I was painfully shy at the time, I couldn’t find a way to talk to him again and so the years passed.
I dated other people, spent my summers working on an island in the Great Lakes, went to London for my junior year, and then returned to my college for my senior year a new person. I had decided in London to no longer be shy. I set a challenge for myself. I would do the things in life that made me afraid because otherwise I was missing too much fun. (I still live by this rubric, which is why I sent Greg the email.)
Once I was back on campus I started reading the university newspaper. Every week I found myself interested in what a reporter named Greg had to say. And yes, dear reader, it was the one and only Uncle Greg. Once again those crazy love gods were toying with me, were they not? Only this time the new Heather would not sit back and pine away, letting life pass me by. But, the flirting lobe of my brain hadn’t developed properly. It was shrunken, hidden behind some cerebral fold that encouraged me to blurt out weird facts (rather than purr mildly sexy innuendo) which left me tongue-tied. I decided that if I couldn’t find a way to talk to him, then I would find other means of communication.
Since this was long before email, let alone virtual social networking, I went old school and wrote to him. Being an aspiring fiction writer, I wrote him a short story. It was no ordinary short story one might write to a crush. There was no flowery language proclaiming my undying infatuation or protracted poetic metaphors such as blossoming trees or ribald imagery like trains speeding through tunnels. No, I wrote and illustrated (yes, dear God, I illustrated it!) a story about a girl who rides off into the sunset on a giant chicken.
I’m hard pressed to explain why. In fact, I can’t come up with a good explanation except for the fact that I was (and am) a dork in a cheerleader’s body. I look the part of someone who should be able to talk to the opposite sex, I can be animated and funny, but inside I’m a dweeb. This would be all well and good, but I also happen to have just enough of what a therapist friend once called “ego stamina” to do potentially embarrassing things like slip this strange missive into Uncle Greg’s school newspaper mailbox with an invitation to meet me for a blind date at eight o’clock that Thursday night. I asked Greg to meet me, sight-unseen (at this point he couldn’t possibly have known who I was), outside Ballantine Hall, where I had a late class on Thursdays. I gave him no way to contact me (because surely giving him my phone number would be far too forward—but inviting him on a blind date via a giant chicken story was perfectly reasonable?).
I had to make it through class that night without underarm sweat rings forming on my shirt while I contemplated quitting school right then and joining the Peace Corp rather than face certain rejection. When eight o’clock rolled around, I stalled in the bathroom, fretting over how I looked, but the grinding in the pit of my stomach spurred me on. I was scared, appropriately so, and that’s why I had to hop to it. I went skipping down the long stone staircase of Ballantine, giddy, nauseous, and ready for whatever happened. If he didn’t show, no one would know that I had been rejected. But there on the sidewalk, beneath a street lamp, was Greg.
This is what I remember. He did a double take. He glanced at me, then looked again with relief, probably that I wasn’t an obvious devil worshiper. Then he smiled and this was good. To the lovelorn, the mere fact that the object of a crush doesn’t find you repulsive is nothing short of inspiration to keep on keeping on. Looking back, I almost feel sorry for that guy under the street lamp. There was nothing he could have done to discourage me short of vomiting on my feet in revulsion. And I also think, Good for him! He was game for something out-of-the-blue and potentially strange. He showed up. And this proved to me that he was the spontaneous, fun guy I was looking for.
Now as I check my email in-box waiting for his reply, I wonder if he’s still up for a slightly weird request. Will he show up again? (And, yes, I see the glaring parallel here between this and my actions in college.)
Turns out, he does. He writes back, “I do remember you, and the ‘crush’, and I’d be happy to give you my account.”
Reading his email, I get a jolt of excitement followed by apprehension. Is it a good thing or bad thing that he remembers me? And why the quote marks around the word “crush”?