When I Was One-and-twenty
From A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
This is a vignette from the love story Julie1 and I shared; it’s not a narrative. That distinction is important because the significance of everything related here lies overwhelmingly within the one scene, lasting less than 10 seconds, described in the vignette, and reading this piece with the expectation of following a dramatic arc, one scene inevitably unfolding into another and finally culminating in a resolution, could well leave one feeling tricked. The paragraphs preceding the vignette are only expository appurtenances to aid in understanding the impact of those few seconds of action in the same way that a tutorial on nuclear physics might enhance ones understanding of the first atomic bomb, but the bomb’s fundamental meaning for the inhabitants of Hiroshima and for the country wielding that weapon is nonetheless revealed within the moment of the bomb’s blast itself.
Storytellers, of course, choose their vignettes for a reason, and, indeed, this is no randomly selected scene but one that dramatically altered the course of the lives of several people and marked a fundamental change in how I understood the world and myself. And, my transformation was no less momentous or traumatic for being a hoary literary cliché; this was the end of my innocence.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the year after Julie and I met was actually an intense courtship. We spent much time together, partially because we were enrolled in many of the same courses, but mostly because we found ways to be together. We had lots of lunches at one fast food joint or another and arranged study dates, sometimes with just the two of us, sometimes with others. Mostly we just talked – about what we were reading, about teachers and other students, about pop music, about politics, about whatever. I even attended two or three parties at her home, where I met her husband, a ex-jock who had been her high school sweetheart, and the one year old daughter they had adopted. Julie and her husband seemed, like most young married couples I knew, a bit awkward with each other but happy enough. My picture of her husband was just as superficial as it sounds. I never characterized him as a rival; he was her husband and I was the clever wise guy who was her buddy. For me, it was axiomatic that I couldn’t take his place, and he certainly couldn’t replace me.
While I present my attraction to Julie as something magical or at least indescribable, there was also an easily recognized, decidedly conventional “I’ve got a crush on you” aspect to my feelings. I never saw her, for example, as anything other than incredibly good-looking (“good-looking” may sound like faint praise, but in my cohort, it was the highest accolade we could bestow on a real person, words like “beautiful” and “gorgeous” being reserved for the gushing, over the top, movie star, Elizabeth Taylor look). I was, in fact, genuinely perplexed that she wasn’t treated like a campus beauty. The possibility that it might have been my perception of her attractiveness that was skewed occurred to me only years later. Of course, today, with the objectivity gained by the passage of time, I’m hopelessly certain she was incredibly good-looking and I’m genuinely perplexed how anyone could have missed that.
Julie was quick enough to catch my most esoteric joke and then spin it into a second generation. She was self-confident enough not to be cowed by bullying teachers, to stand her ground even if no one else agreed with her, and to readily admit those few errors she did make. (One of the first of a multitude of pragmatic skills I learned from Julie was how to graciously and casually surrender a mistaken position in an argument by using her disarming phrase, “You’re right, of course.”) She was willing to take recognized risks for what she wanted and deal with the consequences without complaint. She could do so much so well that she never felt the need to devalue those talents she didn’t possess.
It was during this time that I began assessing everything I did by the criterion of her actual or anticipated reaction to it, a habit that persists today. I saw, for example, a road company production of the musical, Hair, with another woman; I soon forgot who my date was that night, but, as I write this, I can effortlessly conjure up the vivid image of excitedly describing to Julie what I’d seen.
If I had been a radio station, my format would have been All Julie All The Time.
It was also the starting point of a sequence of events that led to a lifetime of waking up every morning looking forward to being with Julie. And, that hasn’t changed either.
I never even attempted to investigate, let alone specify why Julie wanted to be with me, partially because I was more grateful for than curious about how she felt and partially because it was somehow intimidating to contemplate.
While this was a courtship, it was a courtship absolutely innocent of sexual behavior. I cannot disprove the notion that one or both of us were unconsciously promoting a sexual agenda, but it is true that, despite many opportunities, we never approached or even discussed climbing into bed together. Nor did we indulge in the casual social intimacies (e.g., greeting each other with pecks on the cheek) that would have been well within the bounds of local customs for two friends. However steamy things may have been in the hidden recesses of our psyches, in the corporal world there was no kissing, fondling, touching, or other sexually charged physical contact. I focus on this point because (1) I personally find it striking, if not a little absurd, that we felt so strongly about each other and yet were absolutely chaste and ( 2) at a later date, I was not so circumspect – because I was in love with Julie I unhesitatingly slept with her when I had the chance, even though I was, mitigating details notwithstanding, still living with another woman, a violation for which I must take responsibility but which I can’t bring myself to regret.
The Vignette: Julie Makes Me The First To Know
On a pleasant enough day, Julie and I were returning to campus from lunch. As I was pulling into a parking space, Julie said, “I want you to be the first to know – I’m divorcing my husband.” As she paused, I mentally asked myself where we would live, how we would take care of her daughter, how we would support ourselves until graduation, and how I would break the news to my family, … until I realized that the point was that we would find a way somehow. Before I could voice those thoughts, Julie continued, “… and I’m going to marry Philip [one of our English professors].”
And she did.
For more information about Julie Showalter and her writings as well as instructions for finding all of the Julie’s Story posts and downloading a PDF version of all the posts comprising Julie’s Story, go to Julie Showalter FAQ.
- Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman and prize-winning author, with whom I had a outrageously wonderful 20 year marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. Many posts on this blog are about her, our unlikely romance, and our life together, and still others consist of her writings. Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ. [↩]