When he was sixteen years old, he made a terrible mistake that would alter the course of his life.
He asked a girl he knew if she would accompany him to the sixth form ball without knowing for certain that she would accept.
One evening after school he leafed through the Yellow Pages, with its mustard-coloured crinoline leaves, to find her telephone number. Having established which one was hers, and after hesitating and dithering before the telephone in his parent's hallway, he finally picked up the receiver and cautiously pressed the buttons, before stopping halfway through and hanging up. This went on for some time before he plucked up enough courage to keep the receiver at his ear, heart thundering against his rib-cage, tongue heavy and thick in his dry mouth. He finished entering the code and waited until the ring tone came through the ear-piece, sounding out its piercing bark in another hallway across town.
The phone rang out for several seconds before someone picked up. It was an older woman who answered, presumably her mother, sounding flustered. After he asked to speak to her eldest daughter, in the brief pause while her mother put down the handset and loudly, sharply, called her daughter to the phone, he silently plotted the course of their conversation, then listened to the murmurings as they conferred about who was calling, although it wasn’t late, just after tea-time.
The girl picked up the phone and said hello, her voice sounding strange and unfamiliar over the line. He could hear her breathing gently, and thought of her chest rising and falling as she held the phone to her ear, and he allowing himself to imagine talking intimately with her, placing his hands upon her breasts as he kissed her in a darkened corner just off the dance-floor at the ball, or perhaps unbuttoning her blouse one night after school, and as he began his preamble by inquiring as to her general well-being and state of mind, his libidinous urges have way to a forced awkwardness over the line, denoted by her measured and reserved responses to his entreaties.
He worked his way to the inevitable question, in spite of her noncommittal answers, the ill omens, the foreboding, he had come this far, he had to force the moment to its conclusion, and finally he got to the point, stopped beating about the bush, asked Will you come to the ball with me?, and was answered with a strange silence, as if he had said something crude and inappropriate.
When she didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, in that silence he could feel his molecular structure begin to disintegrate, every cell in his body felt like it was denaturing, a sensation of self-evisceration, like he had walked unwittingly into a trap, a terrible self-inflicted personal disaster. Then he heard her voice again as she answered, Oh, I don’t know, and Oh, I’m not sure, and with crushing finality, I’ve been invited by someone else. Then she hung up.
Many years later, after he had all but forgotten the phone call, he came across a quotation by the American psychologist and Harvard professor William James which seemed to summarise that moment.
With no attempt there can be no failure and with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.
James went on: There is a strange lightness of heart when one’s nothingness in a particular area is accepted in good faith...All is not bitterness in the lot of a lover sent away with a final inexorable ‘No’.
Actualities and potentialities. Lightness of heart. All is not bitterness. His sixteen year old self would have thought James was talking out of his arse.
A few weeks later he went to the ball on his own, and she went with that someone else, a taller, darker, more mature boy with a more established moustache and bewildering range of facial tics. From his table, he watched them dancing together, the other boy resting his hands on her wiggling hips, just above her plum-shaped behind, and he could tell that they had already slept together, and he felt an envy so pure coursing through his being that he vowed never again would he ask anyone that question.