The summer of ’96

(Disclaimer: The whole point of the story below is to promote this article I just did on the prevalence of personal stories in a series of media projects, ranging from blogs to magazines to stage shows.)

My life changed in the summer of 1996.

This was the summer when the first copyright law was introduced in Romania—quickly leading to the disappearance of counterfeit Polish and Russian cassette tapes from stores around town. Up to that point I diligently bought almost every release of Euro-dance greats from Sweden to Holland to Germany. I was proud of my hundreds of tapes and even prouder of the “Best of” mix cassettes I turned them into. Back then I strongly believed that my music collection–which I later learned contained little quality material (except for maybe MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice)–was the key to my social survival. I also day-dreamed about how this collection would ultimately ease my plunge into romantic adventures with girls who smelled like vanilla.

The disappearance of knock-off labels like Poker Music (oh, yes!) and Vivo forced me to resort to desperate measures, such as recording music from the radio. It might have also prompted me to tell Cristina I loved her.

That summer I finished my freshman year of high school–nine months of torture that almost led to me being kicked out of school for skipping classes (that’s another story altogether). That same summer Cristina finished her senior year and, barred an act of Balkanic bravery on my part, I would never see her again.

Now, let’s get the obvious out of the way. I didn’t know Cristina and she certainly did not know me. We were never introduced, we never spoke to each other, and the closest I got to her was walking back into the school building after breaks between classes. I don’t remember what she wore or what she smelled like—although whatever it was, it must have been divine. What I do remember is that she was tall, had long black hair and was just cross-eyed enough to break your heart. And, unless my memory went cuckoo (Speak, Memory!), I remember hearing her voice: coarse, stern, yet playful—as if she chain smoked for comic relief.

I decided quickly she would be my unattainable freshman year crush. I watched her daily from a distance and scribbled her name on my arm during boring classes, feeling that the lame body art made her more palpable. My dad would wake me up in the morning to go to school, and I’d still have the scribbles on my forearm from the day before. He would ask who Cristina was, and would laugh as I tried to pull my sleeves over my clumsy love samizdat.

By the time school ended that year, I had found out her last name and where she lived. Although I couldn’t work up the courage to talk to her, I did tell friends about her. One classmate (who later dropped out of school caught in an early experimental phase) told me he knew her—not knew her knew her, but he did know where she lived because he lived in the building next door. Her address and her last name (which today I don’t remember if it was Popa or Pop or Iosif) meant there was a chance.

So one day, a couple of weeks into the summer vacation, I was at my grandparents recording tracks from the radio, when I decided to write her a letter. I probably told her what a magnificent creature she was, how I couldn’t stop thinking about her, how I understood the problems that age difference might cause between us, and how I’d give anything to go out with her. I must have been darn pleased of my composition because I decided to deliver it myself rather than entrust the postman with it. How? Simple: I would walk over to her apartment building at 5 AM the next day and drop the letter on her doorstep on the fourth floor.

This is where things take a turn for the humiliating—but bear with me a little. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, says a good story is made out of chunks of action and reflection. Well, the action is me writing this letter and deciding to deliver it to a girl who doesn’t know me at the crack of dawn. Reflecting back on it today, I see that by deciding to cut the intermediary, I was showing more courage than I had throughout the school year. I also realize what an idiotic plan that was, and I believed I probably loved the idea of writing the letter more than the idea of getting results out of it.

Let me explain.

The next day, I sneak out of my grandparents’ apartment building at 5 AM and make the 20-minute trip to hers. I am clutching the letter and my knees are shaking as I climb the stairs—not because of the letter, but because I am terrified a neighbor will open the door and see a pale-faced brat probably looking to steal something or piss in the plants that Romanians grow in the beige hallways to make them Soviet-blocks look less like prisons.

I drop the letter on her doorstep and make a run for it. I am relieved, happy and full of hope. I had spilled my heart and also gave precise instructions about replying. She would have to write back and drop the letter in the same place she found mine—I would be there the next morning at 5 AM to look for it. In her letter, she was encouraged to accept a date, and I promised to return with details.

I realize today how stupid that was. My gesture, though well-intentioned was as romantic as an invitation to tour a slaughterhouse at sundown. What kind of mad stalker leaves letters on your doorstep at 5 AM and then promises a drooling return the next morning? If I was her dad, I would have made sure to be out there the next day, holding a baseball bat, a big-ass umbrella or whatever other pain-inducing object I had stored in my closet.

But I was young and naïve, and books had instructed me that women love this kind of mystery. Well, I WAS MYSTERY—a full 130 pounds of honey-drizzled mystery!

I made the trip to her house again the next day and climbed the stairs just as terrified. I didn’t dare walk all the way up to the fourth floor, so I peeked from the stairs. There was no letter on the doorstep.

I ran out, more puzzled than dejected. My letter was no longer there, which was a good sign. But what if her parents got the letter and burned it in a Satanic ritual? What if she was out of town and didn’t read it yet? What if a neighbor stole it? What if her alarm clock didn’t ring and she didn’t wake up in time to deliver her heartfelt reply?

The reason I was willing to lie to myself is because I never gave her any alternatives. There was no e-mail back then. No cell phones. Plus, I don’t believe I gave her my address, or my home phone. Maybe not even my last name. In my desire to appear a knight in mysterious armor, I only gave her one option to get on my awesome horse. And she missed it.

Maybe unconsciously I was just looking for a way to break-up with her. She had tortured me enough over the year by making me conscious of my fear of talking to her, and I was looking for a way to break the evil spell of the “what ifs” (As in: what if I had talked to her at school?). My letter presented her with a simple choice. She would either be wowed and agree to have tons of cross-eyed babies with me, or she would not and we’d break-up, never regretting the time we didn’t spend together—a concept I like to call “ex-future girlfriend.”

I got over Cristina a week later, when I met R. on the train to summer camp. She had long dark hair, smelled divinely and was about to enter her senior year. Eager not to repeat past mistakes, I stared at her sucking on a lollipop, gathered all the courage to be found in the feeble mind of a 15-year-old, and launched into the darkness with a shaky voice.

“Do you like to suck?”

Oh, boy, couldn’t I have just written a letter?

6 Responses to “The summer of ’96”

  1. I remember 96 perfectly. I became overnight the Chief of the Licensing Bureau at the local radio station I was working as Music Director. Why? Because the role had to exist according to the copyright law so somebody had to be there to go to prison if necesary…

    Takt were the best quality casettes, however quite rare. No album alterations. Poker not bad either.


  2. ‘Our women were always so real…’ I remember the dbrom special Femeia:))) it’s so much you in this great piece and so much nostalgia…

  3. 96 eh? Well, I also fell for a senior that year, but in the autumn. And I was on my third year of secondary. Anyway, it would be a great to write about it.

    Loved your story. There is something about this unshared loves. They teach you pain, loneliness, survival, endings and hope, lots of hope 🙂

  4. Alina: Hope is the idea. After all, that’s why these are the “we’ve all been there” experiences.

  5. Yes, it is the main lesson you are left with in the end. The rest is..something like bonus points.

  6. You’re right, I really enjoyed this piece!! I can just see you doing those things. But I wish I could see a picture of this girl!!

    Anyway, I guess everyone else is sharing memories, I will too.

    In 1996, I was infatuated with a school friend, Dan, from a far. He was a “bad boy,” the type I always seemed to like. He smoked pot and lost his virginity in the eight grade and was a ladies man (as much as you could be in my tiny nerd high school) even though he wasn’t “hot” by any conventional standard.

    I fell in “love” with Dan during homecoming freshman year. I didn’t have a date but I went with all my girlfriends. Dan came alone, too, and we spent the night talking on the steps in the hallway about how this chick tried to steal my Beatles Anthology CD in computer class…and other stuff, of course.

    I spent the year lusting after him and hating every girl he told me he liked, including Susan, who later became one of my best friends, and this chick Colleen, who Dan joked gave him an erection when she ate an orange in front of him.

    Nothing ever happened between us romantically all through high school. Instead, we became really good friends and he said sometimes I understood his humor so much it was “scary.” I tutored him in biology. Once, I had the chance to kiss him while we were play-fighting on his bed but I didn’t. I thought it would have been like kissing my brother by that point.

    Dan found out I liked him four years after I obsessed over him in 1996. I think during a senior trip I confessed to him. When we graduated, he wrote in my year book “It would have been ‘on’ in 96.” When I read that, it kind of makes me sad. But at the same time, I know I would never have dated him if he had liked me, because he was way too “advanced” and back then I was terrified even to kiss a guy.

    Dan is married now and becoming a lawyer. We recently found each other on Myspace. I hope he doesn’t find this blog b/c he’d probably think I’m psycho. But that’s my story. Not as good as yours.

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