For the first week of 2004, everything felt like a struggle.
I spent hour after hour, day after day at the Walter Reuther Library pouring over the archives of Focus: HOPE. It was halfway through my senior year and I had staked my history thesis on the organization — founded in 1968 as the region braced for another summer of civil unrest, evolving to advocate for civil rights, pursue social justice and create economic opportunities — telling a bigger story about contemporary America and about a struggle greater than I had ever experienced.
I found the primary source materials fascinating. Charismatic speeches by Father William Cunningham, interviews with his co-founder Elenor Josaits, a sting operation to prove that grocery stores in poor neighborhoods were reselling spoiled meat at inflated prices, a lawsuit against AAA's practice of letting customers select the race of their roadside assistance provider. But I could barely keep my eyes open.
It turned out the struggle was real. I was diagnosed with mono and relegated to my childhood bedroom for the duration of winter break.
On my 22nd birthday, I mustered the energy to wrap a scarf around my swollen lymph nodes and leave the house. I made it as far as CVS, past the Pedialyte and anti-inflammatories to the magazine rack. Pre-The-Jessica-Simpson-Collection Jessica Simpson beckoned me with “the stuff MTV didn’t show,” but I paged right past her and all 82 Best Hair Secrets until saw it with my own two eyes: one of my own two eyes (both eyebrows though).
The Accidental Virgin?
I will not comment on the status of my own virginity in 2003 because I am a gentleman. The headline makes it clear enough that I did not have an intimate relationship with the story’s author. In fact, we had never met before. If I remember correctly, she had been an intern at Seventeen and this was her climactic (too soon?) contribution to the magazine.
Not that I necessarily remember correctly. The context is as murky as the experience was vivid. A friend-of-a-friend, let’s say, worked at Seventeen in some non-intern capacity. She had interviewed members of the Columbia Rugby team for a What Guys Think spread earlier in the year. I was not part of the panel and don’t recall the content other than sincerely hoping no Seventeen readers thought much about what my teammates thought or had let it affect how they'd think.
Then the friend-of-friend asked the friend to assemble a group of rugby players to come to Central Park later that day and somehow I ended up doing the assembling and ended up assembling two teammates and a guy from my creative writing class who looked decidedly more like a rugby player than the three of us. Approximately half of us were gay.
We were not informed, in advance or in person, about the article’s subject matter, though I suppose that disclosure could have made things awkward. I assume we signed some kind of photo release before literally — and I’m using the word “literally” literally — frolicking around Sheep Meadow with Jessica (Harter, not Simpson) all afternoon. I am not sure if I am violating the terms of whatever I signed then by writing this now.
Multiple Zoolander viewings over the prior year had not fully prepared me for the objectification and vulnerability I would experience during my tenure as a male model. I don’t know if I was more disappointed or relieved for Mark Ratner — my friend, not the Fast Times at Ridgemont High character — who was cropped out of the picture completely. With apologies to Mark, the picture they used is quite tasteful, far preferable to the footage of us playing pretend rugby with Jessica, carrying her over our heads like a Busby Berkeley leading lady or all jumping (for joy).
After the shoot, we headed back uptown with no indication of when or how the pictures would be used and no opportunity to enrich Seventeen’s readership with our better, gayer romantic advice or creative writing. Sometime later — presumed to be unrelated in the absence of reliable contact tracing — I got mono.
For all the archival research I managed to do in spite of the mononucleotical fatigue, I never read The Accidental Virgin. Having exhumed my copy of Seventeen from a box of mostly yearbooks in the basement, I am now, nineteen years later, without further ado, going to read it—
—Right after I plunge the toilet and the clothes will probably be ready to go in the dryer by the time you’re done plunging.
Apologies for the suspense. Yes, great plunger (me and the plunger — both great). The washing machine indeed beeped right after the follow-up flush. Then I read The Accidental Virgin.
I agree with this: “I wasn’t looking for the love of my life, but I did want to share the moment with someone I could trust, who gave me butterflies, who wouldn’t leave and never talk to me again — someone I could look back on and not regret.”
And this, at least qualitatively: “In my opinion, premarital sex is fine (although I know not everyone feels that way). When I discussed this with my best friend, I canme to the conclusion that while being with more than one guy is perfectly acceptable, four is a good limit.”
—I am now being told it is time to leave for my birthday dinner — Judah decided that my preference was hibachi — lest we arrive late and miss out on the onion volcano or the flinging of food into our mouths.
Rest assured — our dinner at Kyoto was punctual and successful. I had a Sapporo in honor sharing my first legal beer with Grandpa Simie on my 21st birthday. The sake that the chef sprayed in my mouth from a squeeze bottle was in honor of everyone else.
Jessica and I never saw each other again, which was the main impediment to us falling in love before breaking up over something petty, consulting with our respective best friends and then finding our way be to each other on a pier or subway platform.
Still, I can’t help feeling connected to her. We are the same age — now half a life removed from that sun-kissed, memorably unromantic afternoon in Central Park. Each of us had great expectations for the world, wherever it was going to take us. I never questioned my return to Detroit, though my expectations have fluctuated. I wonder whether she found her way back to Kansas City, Kansas, after her internship ended, or left small-town life behind in favor of maybe Kansas City, Missouri.
I hope Jessica got to say goodbye to her hamster Cottenball before he left this mortal coil. I hope her dad — other than Cottonball, the only male of any species she had ever loved at the time of her writing — is well. And even if I may have been the one that got away, I hope she found love.
Celebrating that birthday consisted primarily of making it to page 102 of Seventeen before passing out on the couch. I recuperated, returned to New York, finished my thesis, passed the swim test and graduated in May. In June, I met A.J. To quote Jessica, I felt “the butterflies and anticipation and completely giddy feeling” — to the dismay and detriment of untold Jessicas.
I’m still 40, for a few more minutes at least. Tonight’s photoshoot took place in front of the pantry doors where we take most of our official pictures. Judah agreed to try on the matching argyle sweater as long as he didn’t have to wear it to hibachi and to let me share the pictures Phoebe took, just not on Instagram. He took some pictures at the restaurant, but they were exclusively of his food. And we took a family selfie with the Crumbl Cookie guy because that’s what you do when you are waiting for your Crumbl Cookies.