“I Was Adored Once Too:”Unrequited Crushes with a Future Famous Person
I do not charge for subscriptions any longer, and my writing is free to all, but if you are interested in supporting me and my work, I would very much welcome the one-time or occasional cup of coffee. You can buy me one here. Thank you!
My new website for my writing and coaching business can be found here.
Last week, an old friend goes through her attic, and stumbles upon something that brings back a flood of memories. She posts it on Facebook.
It’s a theater program from June 1981. It lists the cast of the 8th grade production of “The Golden Goose,” an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale, written for the stage by Marcia Hovick, the gifted and charismatic director of Carmel’s Children’s Experimental Theater.
I see my name, the names of a few people I’ve stayed in touch with over decades, and other names I’ve almost forgotten. One name in the latter group jumps out: Megan Cabot, my co-star.
I remember the tall, thoughtful brunette from Indiana, the girl who moved to Carmel for one year while her father spent a year teaching at the nearby Naval Postgraduate School. I had an enormous crush on Megan; it wasn’t just her perfect nose, her dazzlingly wide grin. (Only now do I realize that the first time I saw Julie Roberts — Mystic Pizza — she reminded me of someone I had admired, and that someone had been Megan.) It was her wit, and her bursts of animation; she’d be quiet backstage, lost in thought, and then hear something that surprised or upset her, and she’d interject with a plainspoken boldness. A moment later, she’d fall silent, perhaps embarrassed, while I sat beside her, “gasping at glimpses of gentle true spirit,” as Stephen Stills would have it.
I tried to make small talk with her, and it was desperately awkward. Megan and I had one serious conversation about Indiana basketball and Larry Bird, as I remember, and we both blushed when I unwisely asked if she’d ever been to Larry’s home town, French Lick. (She had.)
In March of 1981, while we were starting rehearsals for the Goose, I was kicked out of York, the private day school in Monterey. (I’d been caught stealing from the locker room, and I had a D average.) It had been a huge embarrassment — my first taste of disgrace in a life that would see that unpleasantness repeated often — and in a small town, word had spread fast. The first time after my dismissal that we gathered at the theater, Megan had come up to me, given me a quick hug, and whispered a hasty, cautious, “I hope you’re okay.”
Megan moved back home to Indiana after the school year was up, and the curtain had fallen for the final time on our brave little version of Grimm’s story. We lost touch, as one did, and I went on to other unrequited crushes. She became Meg, professionally.
The most painful thing about my crush on Meg was that I knew — everyone seemed to know — that though she was friendly with me, she had eyes only for my best friend. Simon was a far better actor, and quicker with the wit and the smile. He might have been shorter than I was, but to the girls, he was far cuter with his thick dark hair setting off piercing blue eyes. Simon and I were nearly inseparable; of the handful of male friends I’ve had in my life, he has lasted the longest.
I resented his popularity — and his comparative wealth. He didn’t seem interested in Meg; his attention was elsewhere, and I damn sure had no intention of encouraging his interest. One night, I had a dream I walked in on Meg and Simon kissing in a dressing room; I woke up feeling bitter and sick. I don’t know how I knew that Meg liked my friend, I just sensed it was so, and I had no thought of confessing a crush that would only make me a subject of awkward pity.
Last week, when I saw her name again, it rang a different bell. A few keystrokes and 20 seconds later, I knew what I recognized: Meg Cabot wrote the Princess Diaries and dozens of other books. I’ve read half a dozen of her works, and of course, watched the movies based on her most famous characters. I don’t know why or how I missed the connection before, but there it was. (Cabot has even written stories set in Carmel, though none reference her year in a small community theater group.)
My friend who had found the playbill from 1981 posts it in the Facebook page for alumni of our old theater group; beneath her photo, I add a note that Meg (not a group member) had “gone on to great things” after her single year with us.
Within an hour, I have a message from an astonished Simon. “You mean to tell me,” he texted, “a future famous author was once in love with me?”
For about half a minute, I get a glimpse of the pain I’d felt that spring I’d turned 14, that spring I tasted my first scandal and shame. Hugo, the troublemaker; Hugo, the glowering angry one; Hugo, awkward and homely, losing out to the boys with tongues and skin much smoother than my own. For an instant, I debate texting back that presuming Meg had been in love with him was an oversell. I decide against it. I don’t remember if Simon even knew I’d liked Meg. I have no desire to stir up what has been an occasion for resentment since around the time of the first Reagan inauguration.
”Yes,” I text him back.
What follows is a long text chain between two middle-aged men who have very much failed to live up to their once-considerable promise, each struck by the discovery that without knowing it, they had been in such close proximity to future greatness. Each of us, sobered and chastened by the comparison between our own efforts and Meg Cabot’s achievements. Each of us, declaring that it once was so that Meg had crushed hard on Simon; my struggling old friend needs to believe he was once worthy and desirable in the eyes of someone famous for her powers of observation.
Me, declaring that the crush was so, both because I believe it to be true, and because it brings me the exquisite jolt of remembered rejection.
Simon says he wants to contact Meg, and asks if I intend to do the same. “Absolutely not,” I say. Struggling writers do not reach out to famous ones, even as old friends. Given her level of celebrity, I imagine Meg has had old acquaintances pouring out of the woodwork over the years, hoping to “pick her brain,” or otherwise lurk beneath the tree of success in hopes a magical leaf will fall. (I know that part of the appeal of Substack posts is that they don’t show up in search engines, so it is not possible that her representatives, looking for new clippings and reviews, will find this newsletter. This is not a backhanded way of getting her attention.)
Simon decides he will write to Meg, and does, tracking her through her agent. He soon receives a brief reply, cordial but with no opening for further conversation. Meg is married; Simon knows this, of course, but he wants, as many of us do, some belated confirmation that what was rumored so many years ago was true. If only Meg would tell Simon she had wanted him once, and though she is ever so content now, she remembers him fondly, and perhaps — the male ego longs to be immortalized in women’s stories! — she’s worked him into a character, some small anecdote tucked into the second act of an elegantly crafted novel for bright and lonely high school freshmen. Simon wants it, and I want it for Simon. It does not seem it will come.
I’ve become quite clear that fame, as alluring as it is, would not do me well. Too much attention destabilizes; it unmoors me from the dock of sacred obligations to which I am so delicately tethered. I am more interested in writing the truth for a few friends, and making money telling other people’s stories, than I am in sitting in a green room, or an agent’s office, considering competing bids. I need to be on a damn short leash in order to stay alive and do the meaningful work of husbanding and fathering.
This certainty about my own fragility, and my awareness of my own damaged brain and history of trauma — all this partially anesthetizes me against the grief that haunts Simon, who, in his mid-50s, is often tormented by the memory of thwarted intentions and unfulfilled promise. I’m just lucky to be here; Simon feels unlucky , and in many ways, he has been. Few men — and it is mostly but not always men who seem so particularly tormented by this sense of failure — are given the gift of knowing that they were architects of their own proverbial adversity. Shame at what one has done is in most ways preferable to resentment of a world that spurned or ignored one’s talents.
”I was adored once too.” That’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s line in Twelfth Night, and though Hemingway could famously break your heart in six words, Shakespeare could do it in five. It’s one of the saddest sentences in English literature. Even those of us who are lucky to be well-loved in the late summer of our lives shudder in partial recognition at Sir Andrew’s anguish. Simon looks back to that spring of 1981, when he made hearts beat faster on the cramped, luminous stage of a small-town black box theater. (I look back to when I was 29, lean and confident, drunk on certainties and ego and this most unexpected tide of girls who projected something onto me I could barely comprehend. You are tired of reading about that time.)
Simon and I both look at Meg Cabot, at least as we see her in her public persona, clever and wise and beloved, a latter-day Judy Blume, secure in her mastery of the most enduring of arts, and we remember when we were all equally promising; fumbling hormonal children longing to be seen for more than the sum of our awkwardnesses.
Simon and I will not bother our one-time friend further. But it has been a remarkable thing to be carried back into the past by a single name.