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How many of us can trace some interest, hobby, or even career choice to a youthful infatuation?
I encountered Ivan in my grandmother’s kitchen in Split. He had requested an extra strong shot of Cedevita (a powdered vitamin drink), and my aunt obliged by filling the glass half-full with powder. He brushed his floppy hair aside, downed the fizzy concoction, grimaced, and laughed. That vacation he rang the doorbell a few more times, while I sat around writing poems about him and how I wished the doorbell would ring. On the one visit to his apartment in the building next door, he showed me a fantastic self-portrait he had painted, and some exercises he was doing in art school. He was 14. I was 12.
The following year I was again in Split, but just for an evening. Ivan and I wandered around the old city, eating corn on the cob bought from a street vendor. Ivan was so funny, I nearly peed my pants. Maybe I even did pee my pants. When we got back, I dug up the poetry I had written for him. He listened, amused, and when I walked him to the door, he leaned in for a kiss. I momentarily panicked and closed the door in his face, which was the last I ever saw of it. He and his mom moved the next year, possibly related to the collapse of their 2nd floor balcony on New Year’s Eve, when everyone had piled out onto it to watch the fireworks.
The reason I mention Ivan is that he nearly made an artist out of me. Not only did I increase my Cedevita intake, but I started painting in earnest. Every once in a while, I would pull out a photo of Ivan’s self-portrait for inspiration. In the following 1.5 years I painted enough for a small portfolio that gained me admission to 2 art magnet high schools in NYC. I opted for Stuyvesant HS instead, and pretty much abandoned my interest in art for a while. But it was a close call. Ivan went on to become a professional illustrator and published a graphical novel (as Google tells me).
At Stuyvesant I became infatuated with M., who sat in the row behind me in biology class. I almost never talked to M., except to catch him saying “I play violin” (I purchased several violin concertos on CD, lacking any discernible music ability of my own), “I run track” (I joined the track team, even though gym was my worst subject), “I go to ancient greek club in the morning” (this I only tried a few times because at 8am it conflicted with math team), “now I play the cello” (I augmented my CD collection to include cello compositions). Our biology teacher must have noticed my obvious crush, and paired us off for a quiz on human sexuality. M. knew all the answers, except one; I switched his answer of “semen” to “seminal fluid”. We got a 100 on the quiz, but that was just about the only success I experienced with M. (besides when we compared our 1st report cards and he said “What? Your GPA is 98.7? I though my 98.1 was the highest!”).
At the end of freshman year, my family moved. M. stayed. Although I don’t remember any ancient greek at all, I did gain a greater appreciation of string-oriented classical music, and I actually continued to run track and cross country for the rest of high school in an undistinguished way. M. continued his musical training and plays concerts, but is a physician by day (um, thanks again Google).
I suppose that must be what they mean by “impressionable” when they talk about youth. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be. Liking boys, and then wanting be like them, made sense. But once I knew who I wanted to be, who did I want them to be? By the time I was a freshman at Caltech, I wanted to be a physicist, or a mathematician, or something like that. E., a sophomore physics major and my first steady boyfriend, was acing his classes. I thought he was great, and so did he. When a few short months later, he dumped me for another, I started dating D., who had published papers already back in high school. D. was a more attentive boyfriend than E., e.g. on the occasion of breaking up with me, he told me a couple of jokes to cheer me up first.
Even before their ends, these relationships made me unhappy. Dating conspicuous academic accomplishment comes at a price. Not only did I have to compete with E and D’s homework /extra credit/research assignments for their attention, but it spoiled my independent fun to know that my significant other had the discipline to work all the time while I sometimes wanted to not work. It was also difficult to maintain self-esteem. While constantly thinking about how great they were, I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t as great. When my freshman progress report for a sophomore abstract algebra class generously said that “Lada is getting used to the level of abstraction”, D’s progress report for a graduate level applied math/CS class said that he was far outperforming the graduate students. Even though E and D were always able to help me if I got stuck on homework assignments, my self-esteem and GPA improved after they were no longer around.
So after ceasing to want to be like the boys I liked, I also stopped liking men I wanted to be (exactly) like. Now I’m married to a man I like to love, and who has many fine qualities I can admire without necessarily wanting to acquire.
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