IN AUGUST 1988, I flew out of Cleveland Hopkins Airport, bound for a year abroad on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship. At 24 years old, I was finishing my BA in English, history and education from a small evangelical Christian college in the Midwest.
I was heading for London. For the first time, I would live outside my Amish-Mennonite community in Ohio.
Until then, I had been a faithful church member — a leader in our youth group, a teacher at our parochial school, the manager of a music ministry group that toured Christian churches.
When I returned in May 1989, everything had changed. Angry and confused, I abandoned my Amish-Mennonite community. Rather than teaching lessons to the youth in our Christian school, I became The Lesson for a new generation of Amish-Mennonite youth across the nation.
What happened to me in London? What caused me to leave?
That is the story of my upcoming memoir, How To Tie A Tie. Below is another excerpt.
WHEN I REMEMBER that time, I think about one moment in a pulsing London nightclub, shortly after I arrived. I was with a group of fellow exchange students, trying to figure out how to fit in. I had zero confidence when it came to dancing. Never had a single lesson — dancing was of the devil, I’d been told since childhood, because it leads to sex.
Dragged into the action, I froze in the center of the dance floor, wondering how to move. I felt exposed, stupid — not in control.
How am I supposed to act out here anyway? Is this move okay? That one?
Everyone could tell I’d never danced before — it was so obvious. Everyone was watching me. Everyone was laughing at me.
Only after I returned to my group did I realize the truth. People around me had been drinking, talking — getting it on. The music was loud, cigarette smoke thick. They danced, lost in their own moves, their own agendas.
They barely noticed my quandary.
In fact, when I returned to my group, I realized no one had noticed anything strange about my dancing. The only thing they thought strange was the fact that I asked.
JUST TRYING TO survive — that’s what I was aiming to do at first. It was a scary new world, me out there alone, cut off from my family and home, separated from a too-caring and too-curious community who’d led me to believe I was far more important that I actually was.
Nothing like the Big City to chop a country boy down to size. Talk about an education. But it wasn’t the education I expected.
Yes, there was my schedule of college classes. Also my social education, which included going to pubs, developing a new network of friends, finding out that different things annoyed people in this confusing new world — and yes, learning to dance.
But there was another skill I needed — that is, if I intended to survive.
PERHAPS IT ALL started with the Irish author James Joyce.
Reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a literature class, I felt in him a kindred spirit. As I read about his strict Catholic education, similar to mine at our Amish-Mennonite parochial school, a powerful connection was forged.
Just like me, Stephen Daedalus/James Joyce was unable to break with his religious guilt.
Just like me, he was a struggling writer.
And just like me, Joyce named his main character Stephen. Different spelling, but same name.
Yes, we were a lot alike, James Joyce and I. True, he was Irish-Catholic instead of Swiss-German Mennonite … but that was a minor difference. What was important was this — Stephen Daedalus/James Joyce was having girl troubles.
Check, check, check.
THE CULTURAL ISSUE exacerbated my situation.
Before I got to England, I had been well warned by flyers from the Rotary Foundation. Things would be different while studying abroad, they emphasized.
I didn’t believe it. They spoke English, didn’t they? I had an excellent command of the English language. How difficult could things be?
Too late, I realized they weren’t talking about English.
When I arrived at Richmond College and tried to connect to other students — British or American — I found we spoke two entirely different languages.
Cultural languages, that is.
Yes, I spoke English, but something about my speech patterns felt off to people. They responded in confusion. I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I could see it in their eyes.
Although I dressed much like everyone else, I gave myself away by the things I talked about.
THE REAL PROBLEM, of course, lay in my inability to focus on anyone outside myself.
How could I?
My internal power source was completely tapped out, drained down to zero in order to survive double culture shock. I was 1) not only having a crash course in British culture, but also 2) going through the loss of my entire social network.
I didn’t know it then, but falling in love, having a romantic relationship, becoming a player — whatever choice a college student chooses to make — none of these was going to happen to me in London.
I wasn’t ready.
I had regressed to adolescence, with all its attendant awkwardnesses. Like any teenage boy, I spent all my spare time staring wide-eyed into the mirror, trying to figure out why I couldn’t fit in, why those ugly social warts had suddenly appeared.
Worst of all, no one around me seemed to understand what I was experiencing.
I REMEMBER A conversation I had with Keira, another student from the Midwest. We were walking home from history class.
She was crazy about pop music and culture, and she enjoyed drinking. Somehow we got on the subject of Tequila. When I admitted I was still a Tequila virgin, she informed me — her lip curling — that it tastes a great deal like gasoline.
I considered that. It was September, and I hadn’t started drinking yet — I was waiting until I made it through culture shock, whatever that was — so I didn’t have much to say.
But never at loss for words, I changed the subject.
In detail, I explained my father’s belief that the wine in the Bible was not really alcoholic.
“My father and I disagree about this,” I explained with a sniff. “But I don’t think Jesus was afraid to drink alcoholic wine.”
I sensed her confusion.
“You see,” I stated confidently, “my father takes literally the parts of the Bible that seem to reject alcohol, like in Proverbs — ‘Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup’ — but of course, that doesn’t take into account the fact that, according to the Gospels, Jesus drank wine.”
“My father thinks — because of an evangelist he once heard — that Jesus and his disciples watered down the wine. So they wouldn’t get drunk. That makes no sense.”
I suddenly heard an odd sound, and I glanced over at Keira. She’d come to a dead halt in the street. When I met her gaze, she quickly snapped her jaw shut and caught up with me.
“Yeah, that makes perfect sense, Steven. Perfect sense.”
Somehow I sensed it didn’t, but I wasn’t sure how to continue the conversation.
We had run out of things to talk about, apparently, and we walked up the steps to the college in silence. Keira turned with a bright smile.
“Okay, gotta go. Urgent appointment with the hair dryer.”
(Or was it the library? I can’t remember.)
Yeah, it was like that sometimes.
It took me years before I could glimpse myself through Keira’s eyes, before I could understand that moment.
Keira thought she was chatting up a normal American guy. Suddenly, she found herself listening to him explain his spiritual angst. She hadn’t signed to walk home with an uneasy oddball who had religious issues with his father.
She certainly didn’t give a flying nickel for his geeky analysis of Jesus’ drinking habits.
To Keira (and every other girl in London), drinking booze was a fine thing. Drinking booze was a lot of fun. Drinking booze was especially fun when it wasn’t legal.
But it wasn’t fun when you tried to exchange drinking stories with a guy, and the only story the guy could deliver was some lame argument he’d had with his father about whether or not Jesus drank real wine.
EVEN WITHIN MY Amish-Mennonite community, I was known as a late bloomer. All through high school, I lacked the confidence to ask girls out on dates. In the three years between high school and college, I avoided commitment because I feared marriage would get in the way of my college education. Once in college, I avoided dating because so few of the college coeds I met were Amish-Mennonite.
You’d think I was looking for an excuse.
Torn between two worlds, I chose to become just friends with women. It was the safest way to avoid making life decisions.
But now, in London, I was ready to take the next step.
TO MY SHOCK, I discovered you don’t go from Mr. Naive to Mr. Player in one weekend.
Like learning to drive a car or mastering the Electric Slide, learning a more Worldly dating style takes commitment, practice — and a little bit of talent.
I had none of the above.
Practice? I had just entered the game.
So too, I could scratch off commitment. I wasn’t even sure I should be dating Worldly women — so with each outing came a dollop of guilt mixed with uncertainty. Not the kind of confidence that inspires a Lady Fair.
And talent? I doubt it. I’d barely taken off my suspenders.
Thus, I found the whole dance of dating to be confusing.
Yes, asking girls out on dates was easy. Sometimes they accepted. But that was due to my cluelessness more than anything else. Like an idiot savant, I was too ignorant to be deterred.
The pattern was soon set.
Once the romancing was done — once I’d dined a girl and shepherded her to a show or movie — things fizzled. The Train of Desire was forced onto a sidetrack.
”Thanks for the great evening,” she’d say kindly. “You remind me of my best friend back home.”
She didn’t mean a friend with benefits either.
So I sat there, neatly sidelined, engines rumbling. All I could do was wave at the other locomotives blasting past.
Unhappy endings like that were hard on a young man’s pride.
I was baffled.
How did other guys seem to move things along so easily? Girls and guys went out, and things — well, things just happened.
Sometimes things happened a lot.
But me? The World was a confusing place.
I’d go out with a girl who was clearly attracted to me. I was clearly attracted to her. And yet clearly, by evening’s end, we’d become friends.
Deadly word on the campus dating scene, that word.
Somehow, I was flashing the wrong signal. Somehow, when girls went out with me, they saw red lights rather than green lights.
Somehow, I needed to switch my signal to green.
KATE FIRST LAID eyes on me on the way to our Modern Dance class early in the first semester.
I was charging along the street when she called my name, and I turned to see a girl with curly dark hair and a snarky smile. I recognized her as she approached, dressed in a black leotard with bright pink leg warmers. When she screamed with laughter at something I said, I knew for sure who she was.
As she stuck out her hand and shook mine, we both fell in love.
“New Jersey girl,” she quipped. “Don’t worry. We can be late. This professor doesn’t care. At least I don’t.”
Our dance teacher cared a lot, but with Kate beside me as we ambled into class, I didn’t care either.
After class, we stopped for a coffee. One cappuccino wasn’t enough that day. She had finally found someone she could talk to.
Her humor was ruthless, but to me she was understanding, kind. Clearly, she liked me, got me.
I visited Kate that night in her dorm room. She was in the midst of painting, slashing bright color across swathes of white canvas.
When I asked her what it all meant, she was brutally honest.
“Maybe it’s the state of my soul. I’m still trying to recover.”
Who better to help her than me?
“Recover from what?” Somehow, my directness didn’t put Kate off. She considered me.
“I need to tell you sometime about my boyfriend.”
Boyfriend? Clearly one far in the past.
Turned out the love of her life was suffering from depression. It was all finally too much.
Kate had come to London to escape, to start over.
“He’s still the love of my life.”
I doubted it. Obviously, she had found someone better in me.
And then there was Joey. Another (former) boyfriend of hers. Joey adored his liquor. He’d call her when he was drunk, and she’d always go to help him. Poor guy, he must have been in a lot of pain.
Fortunately for Kate, Joey had moved to London — like everyone else in her world, he had plenty of money — and was renting a flat several blocks from the college.
IT WAS CLEAR. Kate liked me a lot — no, she loved me. This boded well for our future. Or so I thought.
Yes, she was confused right now, but eventually, she’d recognize me as the sort of steady Eddy she really wanted. She’d drop those other guys like last night’s empty beer cans. What a handsome couple we’d make.
I might have mentioned her in a letter to my mentor. Because shortly afterward, he sent me a fat check and told me to spend it on a night out. Perhaps I should take that girl with me.
So I invited Kate.
She happily accepted.
We dressed up that night for the Royal Opera House in Covent Gardens — I in a black-tie tux and she in a flirty cocktail dress. We thoroughly enjoyed our lavish dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant. As we watched Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, Kate glowed with pleasure.
She touched my hand just as the Black Swan died. Now I glowed. She was in love. I was in love. Surely, we had turned a corner.
I blew all the money on dinner and the tickets, and then some.
When I escorted Kate to her dorm room — she lived in a single — I was sure she’d invite me in. Finally, she was ready. My patience had paid off.
But there, suddenly, was a note taped to the door. Her smile slipped to a worried frown.
“I really have to go, Steven. Joey’s in trouble. You understand, right?”
Her grey eyes pleaded with me, and I nodded. She pulled me into a hug.
“You’re the best kind of friend, you know,” she said, voice breathy in my ear. “You’re like a brother to me. I’m so glad we had this evening together. I’ll never forget it.”
I trudged back to my dorm room by myself. It was 10:30 pm on a Saturday night, and I brooded on her last words to me.
Something had gone off the rails again. I just didn’t know what.
JUST BEFORE LAURA and I got married — 24 years later under pearlescent skies in North Seattle — she pointed out what I didn’t realize when I first met her years ago.
“We fell in love with each other when we both quit staring in the mirror and started looking at each other.”
At the age of 54, I’m still clueless, but I have moments of clarity. My wife was being kind, diplomatic. She doesn’t like to use the word You.
I think what she meant was this: “We fell in love with each other when you quit looking in the mirror and started looking at me.”
Thank God, in spite of all that, Laura fell in love with me anyway.
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