Saturday, April 28, 2012

I Am A Bizarre Minor Character In Tina Fey's Book

Here is a paragraph from Bossypants, Tina Fey's memoir:

During my first year, I had a crush on a brainy, raven-haired boy from my dorm. This played out like the typical sexy coed letter to Penthouse. He would ask me at least once a day if I had ever seen the movie Full Metal Jacket. I would remind him that I had not. He would then describe parts of it to me. After several weeks of mistaking this for flirtation, I tried to kiss him one night by the Monroe Hill dorms and he literally ran away. Not figuratively. Literally.

I'm the guy she's talking about.

It's a funny story. And when I say "funny," what I mean is that it will probably be funny to you. Me, not so much. Also, before we go further you should know that yes, I was as weird and socially backward as she describes. Let nothing I write be a denial of that. Stipulated.

I'm not a big part of the chapter. If you read it, you see that she uses our story as a prologue for how bad her romantic life was going to be during college. I am only the first of a long line of men who don't connect with Tina during her years at UVA. But I wanted to write about it, because long before she ever published this book or even became famous, that little paragraph was an important story in my head.

Everyone has damage, right? Each person reading this has those three or four terrible romantic memories, the ones that left marks somewhere deep inside your cranium. And I want to point out here that I'm very happily married today to a wonderful woman, and have been for a dozen years. But that's not really the point. Because no matter who you are right now, at some point in your past you've been hurt. And usually what hurt the most is how stupid you were. What most of you do is, of course, forget when you were involved in an emotional car wreck. You scab over. You go on. Unless say, the person who was in one of those wrecks with you ends up becoming one of the most famous fucking celebrities in the world, so that you can not walk into a bookstore, a 7-11, a Target, you can not open up iTunes or surf the web without. Seeing her face. Her goddamn face. Absolutely. Everywhere.

Here's how it started:

We both went to the University of Virginia in the fall of 1988. And we both auditioned for Godspell. Yes, the one with Jesus as a travelling clown and his disciples as hippy assistants, only it's somehow lamer than Jesus Christ Superstar. No, I do not have pictures. If I did I'd be a very rich man, and my career would be blackmailing Tina Fey.

Our audition lasted a little over an hour, and it was in one of those terrible student lounges decorated like the 1970's threw up. We all had a series of improv exercises, and it was the first time I noticed this dark-eyed girl who always looked a little angry, and was smarter and funnier than I was. I think I knew it immediately. We made the cut, and we started rehearsal soon after. This was a first year production, and none of the shows or practices took place at the actual UVA theater, which is a really impressive building. Instead we found ourselves meeting in cafeterias and rec centers, and once or twice at a local church. Rehearsals were long and physically exhausting, and we were new to the school. We were a collection of theater nerds and academic types, and we banded together. We began to meet in small groups to eat lunch or study in the library. And I found myself showing up at Tina's room, where we'd talk for hours. I had few friends (and my roommate was a fundamentalist Christian who was trying to convert me, because I was Catholic, and I once told him I thought people from other faiths could probably get to heaven, so clearly I was in spiritual trouble. He actually said he was going on a fast to pray for my soul. I didn't like being in my room).

Tina came from a much bigger city than I did, and her life seemed fascinating. She told me how her dad cracked codes during the Korean war, and as a result he hated the jumble puzzles in the newspaper. She told me about her crazy theater friends back home, and about being a Greek kid growing up in the Philadelphia area. Her roommate was a beautiful black-haired, pale girl from Bavaria. Tina spoke German to her and she'd reply in English, so they could each learn each other's languages. I remember around Christmas time, Tina and her friends showed up at my dorm, upset because some guy across the quad from their building had decorated his window with lights, and some douchebags had rearranged them to spell "fag." She made jokes about it, but it got to her, and I remember thinking that she had a real conscience, and she hated bullies.

I told myself that Tina and I were just friends. I had a girlfriend two years younger than me back home. She was my first serious girlfriend, and we had that kind of crazy, intense relationship you have when you are trying to make things work long distance, and you both talk about how you'll probably break up eventually, because you're sensible, but you've also gone ahead and named your future kids, just in case. Tina referred to her as my "child bride."

When the play ended I no longer had a reason to see her every day. But we found reasons anyway. We ate together and studied together, and we were still just friends, because I wasn't the kind of guy who'd cheat on anyone, ever. But one night we were walking along a dark path that led past the Monroe Hill dorms - like she writes - and she grabbed the lapels of my coat and tried to plant one on me. I really, really wanted that kiss to happen. Instead I jerked my head back, and she let go of me, horrified.

We argued, and she wanted to know why I'd been spending so much time with her if I wasn't interested. I made excuses. We continued arguing as we walked to the library, and soon I left. We talked a little more in the days that followed, but it had all changed, and we couldn't really be friends. She sent me a Christmas card that year while we were on break with a joke about the insane Virginia Woolf book she had to study for her lit class the last semester.

In the spring my girlfriend and I broke up. It didn't matter. For the next three years, Tina and I would occasionally run into each other around the university. We'd make small talk, and she'd say something funny and mean. At the time I thought I was doing right by my girlfriend back home, being good and honorable and all those other things you're supposed to be. Today the situation seems obvious. I really had fallen for Tina, and I should have broken up with my girlfriend, and just admitted all this to myself, instead of driving Tina crazy with my obsessive movie quotes. I should have let my girlfriend find someone else. This is a fairly common dating trauma. The only reason it hurt so much is it happened when I was 18, and you never really get over 18. Why? Because 18 is when your life begins to fall apart.

That first year of college, I really, honestly thought I was going to become wildly successful as a writer, and that I'd probably live in a luxury apartment in New York, and spend my spare time being interviewed and photographed. I know, I know... that's stupid, right? I mean, no one really lives like that. Well, almost no one.

I had this gut feeling that there was some plan for my life. It was already mapped out, and it was wonderful. It ended with me getting everything I wanted. At that age I began to realize that none of that crap was true. The world was filled with smarter, more capable people than me.

On graduation day Tina and I spotted each other across a crowd of tassled caps, as my class moved up the steps of the Rotunda, and onto the Lawn to join the rest of the poor, working bastards out in the world. She gave me a friendly wave and disappeared.

At first I worked as a reporter for a small town paper, and lived over a church bingo hall. Then I moved to New York City and became a reporter for a civil service newspaper. I spent the 1990's scrounging for freelance magazine work, becoming an advice columnist at Mademoiselle, a writer for Maxim, trying (and failing) to get into the CIA shortly after 9/11, and writing a book about Dracula that did, um, okay. I have a novel in my desk, a self-published collection of short stories, and this blog. My career is clearly a work in progress. I have failed, often thoroughly.

And as the years passed, people would mention that girl I met at UVA. Did you hear she's a writer with Saturday Night Live? Did you see that first Weekend Update episode? She's writing a movie now, and I think she's even in it! She's got her own TV show - didn't you know her back at school? Yes, yes, and yes. And fuck you very much for mentioning it.

There is one consolation I can take. Learning that your life isn't some glorious plan, and that you aren't the smartest, most talented person in the world is a great way to stop being an arrogant jerk. I think I was, back then, whatever my intentions to be good. I took for granted that I was better than other people. Now I know, absolutely know, that I am not. Somewhere along the line it made me capable of being a halfway decent human being to my wife and kids. The universe is usually a hell of a lot meaner when it teaches you a lesson. Because it's not actually trying to teach you anything. It's trying to kill you. Ultimately it will succeed. That seems depressing, but knowing it is the key to being happy.

Anyway, I am certain that the majority of my plans will fail. But I'm solid. I'll keep trying. And maybe Tina Fey will decide to go into zoology or professional spelunking, or something else with a lower public profile. Weirder things have happened, right?


  1. "And they trill to each other in dead languages
    all the disappointments that have ever
    trailed a man or a woman all the way to the last place they left,
    and if you could understand what they say to each other
    you'd know everything you need."

    Or something like that, as I recall.

    Perhaps the suits will come after you for posting this, but I'm glad you did.


    1. Thank you! Let them come. Molon labe, and all that.

  2. Paul - You were NEVER a jerk!! You were ALWAYS funny, sincere and talented! Don't worry you are famous in our family - but you really should have taken that kiss!! Love you! Mama H

  3. Hey, at least you met her. I always wondered why she never came by the YJ, and only recently did I realize that a) only Rob McGee and Carl Swanson were ever funny, and b) the rest of us were drunkenly tasing each other and being aggressively unfunny. She probably DID come by and was horrified.

  4. what a great story and observation about life. I'm going to tell my 23 year old daughter about 18 being the age when your life starts to fall apart. She needs to know this, because even with a fine degree she's part-time manager at an ice cream shop and thinks she's already a failure.

    I could tell her even more about my failures than I already have, but I've already told her plenty.

    You are an excellent writer, too.

  5. I just stumbled across this. UVA class of 1995 here - you and Tina were 4th years when I was a 1st year. I love this blog post and the lessons it imparts.

  6. Wow, this is actually really sad and made me think about my own stupidly missed romantic opportunities, which are legion.

  7. Thanks for posting this. But I don't really understand your perspective, because this blog is one of the best things on the internet. You're amazingly talented and funny.

  8. This really deserves to be narrated on a Sunday show of some sort on NPR,.....but even with celebrity elements added, I suppose it probably wont happen.

    Oh well, . . .what the Fey.

    ( really was a damn good read )


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